Compassionate Change

Elizabeth Seely serves as the Chief Administrative Officer – Hospital Division at the Wexner Medical Center. She is responsible for the operational performance of University Hospital, the Ross Heart Hospital, Harding Hospital, Dodd Hall, the Brain and Spine Hospital and University Hospital East.
Spring is here (I hope) – change is in the air. But unlike the changing of the seasons in Ohio, which will more or less happen eventually, ongoing research data – from Kotter in the mid-90s through McKinsey now – shows that 70% of large-scale change initiatives fail. Why? And what can we as leaders at Ohio State do to “beat the odds” as it relates to the Enterprise Project?

In my personal experience, it’s not the “what” of a change that trips us up, but “how” a change is planned for and implemented that makes the difference. If we don’t address the human aspects of change, we will inevitably encounter great difficulties in moving forward, experience unintended consequences, or damage the organization’s culture.

While the underlying reasons for a change and the ultimate outcomes of a desired change may all be very positive, it is natural to interpret the process through a human lens of fear and uncertainty of both real and potential losses – job loss, loss of responsibility and independence, reduction of decision authority, loss of expertise, new expectations, new and unfamiliar tasks and new colleagues.

So what’s a leader to do? This is where compassion comes into play in change leadership. Leaders need to understand and embrace that the heart of successful change is an emotional transition. Instead of dismissing or ignoring concerns about the human costs of change, compassionate leaders acknowledge difficulty and distress, guide people through their feelings about change, find ways for them to connect to each other and the organization in new ways, and reinforce the personal value of each team member. These compassionate actions – the “how” of the change – are just as much a responsibility of leadership as the “what” of the change.

Showing compassion doesn’t mean excusing poor results, poor behavior, or just giving up. What it does mean is acknowledging that change can be difficult for some, validating the challenging nature of change and its associated feelings, and then reaffirming each team member’s value along each step of the change journey. Ask your team questions, including how they feel, and look for ways to help people engage in the process.

I believe that Maya Angelou got this so right when she said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Even if the “what” is a difficult change, through compassionate change leadership, we can all help each other feel better about the “how.”