Prioritizing Humanity During Change

Unity and teamwork concept

When I launched this blog series six weeks ago, the goal was to show organizational leaders how to focus on the human element as they helped employees navigate the massive work life transition of COVID-19. Today, many leaders are tackling an even bigger shift; committing to sweeping social change in their firms, focused on racial equity. Such efforts require leaders who prioritize human factors. This means actively engaging people about their experience with change and building a culture of bravery where they can take risks, learn, and grow together. Through this lens, I’ll recap some factors to inspire growth and accelerate momentum on our learning journey.

Dodging Common Change Missteps
Senior Management Doublespeak
Reading posts and emails of corporate declarations to enact change on racial injustice is inspiring. But, the world is watching and questioning the authenticity and sustainability of these efforts. Are leaders performing? What will actually change and what does change look like? I applaud those who are putting a stake in the ground, for they are shining a spotlight not only on the problem but on how they will walk the talk. When senior management says it will create a diverse workforce inclusive of all races and genders, they must hold themselves to creating success measures and to examining their role in eliminating systemic racism.

Inhibiting Learning
In change efforts it’s common to value execution over learning, but an emphasis on critical self-reflection among senior management is essential for successful transformation. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen positive examples of top executives humbly admitting their need to grow and taking positive actions such as funding social justice initiatives. Some leaders are engaging in challenging conversations with employees; listening to their viewpoints, baring personal discomfort and anxiety, and pivoting decisions based on further learning. This willingness to look within and actively engage in uncomfortable discussions matches my experience working with great change leaders who inspire others through their example and who are always open to learning.

Three Practices to Build Confidence
Maintain Positive Belief
I’ve been energized listening to social justice leaders who demonstrate the ability to speak frankly about the painful impact of systemic racism. At the same time, they provide a sense of hope that with focus, active engagement, and active learning by white people, it can be dismantled. The capacity to maintain and model this positive belief as a leader is essential in uplifting people during times of uncertainty – offering faith and courage to move forward through transformation.

Establish Trust
Positive belief must be backed up by leaders modeling trust-building behaviors during change. As we explored in blog three of this series [link to blog #3], these behaviors include transparency in communication, exhibiting genuine care by adapting to people’s unique needs, and showing people you have their backs. These transformation efforts provide opportunities to consider the human impact before taking actions. That pause, in combination with higher levels of empathy and personal connection with people, are requisite for credibility and progress.

Align Your Actions
Successful organizational change hinges on adapting systemic levers to reinforce the “desired future state.” For example, senior executives who have declared success around social reform in their organizations need to go beyond rolling out diversity training. True change efforts demand that leaders take a hard look at their hiring practices as well as the cultural norms that give voice and power to a privileged few. As a coach for women of color, I’ve experienced their white male managers tell me, “She needs to build confidence.” Change will sound like them saying, instead, “We are working to create an inclusive process that helps all people succeed. I’d like to learn how to be a better ally.”

Inspiring Change
In the last blog we looked at the four roles of effective change leaders: coach, catalyst, champion and communicator [link to blog 4]. Well-intentioned leaders will see a positive impact when they build capacity in each of these positions. We can all learn from the powerful examples of those who seamlessly shift between these “hats” to connect and bring others with them on the journey to racial equity. These leaders ask insightful questions to spur self-reflection among their peers, offer compelling data to challenge assumptions about Black communities and people of color, and affirm progress made by white allies engaging in conversations. They also call out the need for sustained effort and deeper work by white people, and share a vision of possibility to create change.

Putting Practices into Action:
Focusing on the human element of transformation requires self-awareness, reflection and feedback, experimentation, and learning from experience. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are you prioritizing in your change management efforts right now as you lead through social and work life transitions?
  • How are you considering the impact on people through these efforts? How are you learning about the impact from the broadest representation of people, particularly those in marginalized groups?
  • What feedback loops have you established to stay connected and learn from your people?
  • How is your leadership team investing in their growth as change leaders?

Developing as a leader in this area is hard work but it’s so very important. I encourage you as you take steps to value the human factor in change…your organization, and the world, will be all the better for your efforts.