Change Management Is Really All About Human Relationships
I started my career as a licensed clinical social worker. My passion has always centered around helping others.
Empowering people and bringing them together has been at the core of my career in healthcare for over 20 years. A few months ago, I started a new role at IA as an advisor and now I help leaders at big companies implement changes that affect thousands of employees.
What’s the through line? How did social work lead me to HR?
To me, it’s clear: my work has always been about human relationships and helping people adjust to change.
Change is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. And here’s what I’ve learned: most of the time, when change feels chaotic and overwhelming, it’s because somewhere along the way, a relationship went awry. Communication about a change should be intentional and well thought out; it should include clarity, transparency and empathy. Whether the change is perceived as positive or negative, it involves moving away from what we know and moving toward the unknown.
As a social worker, I helped people build better, healthier relationships. As a healthcare administrator, I developed new relationships between organizations and teams. And now, I’m helping HR people navigate, cultivate, and nurture messy relationships with providers, leaders, and employees. I’ve learned that cultivating strong, trusting relationships takes effort, intention, and time. But investing in those relationships is worth it, because when change inevitably arises, that solid foundation allow the ups and downs to be much easier to navigate together.
Here’s what every HR pro should know about developing positive relationships.
Lay the Groundwork
We have to put the “human” back into human resources.
I know, I know. I haven’t been working in HR for all that long, and even I know that the phrase is overused. Far too often, though, we’re focusing on our resources — the new tools we have, what we need from an employee, a report from a vendor — and we’re not putting our effort into making sure people trust us before we ask them to make hard decisions.
Because here’s the thing — the key to a successful change starts long before you ever even decide to make a change at all.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re changing the dynamics of your relationship with a vendor or changing a company policy. You have to lay the groundwork before a successful change can begin.
It’s easy for business relationships to become purely transactional. That’s kind of the whole point of business. But it’s a mistake.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to be best friends with every single person in your professional life. But it does mean remembering that your interactions are with fellow human beings. It means having open lines of communication and transparency with anyone you work with. It means being able to communicate throughout whatever issues may arise.
Everyone you work with is your partner. In a time of change, you’ll need those partners’ help and trust. If you don’t have that trust now, do you really think you’re going to get it when things get stressful?
Be a Good Communicator
It would be great if change was as easy as flipping on a light switch. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t quite work that way.
As you’re considering a change, remember that you’re not just changing a process. You’re potentially changing something that is important to someone. People are going to have some serious opinions regarding your decisions which means things could get emotional.
First, involve stakeholders in your decision-making and thought processes. Find out how your potential changes will affect them. Be a good listener, pay attention to how people are reacting to the proposed change, and be open to feedback. Actively listening and responding to the emotional component of the change will not only build trust, it will positively impact their level of engagement as the change is implemented.
Second, be intentional about your process. Although change can feel invigorating, it can also feel messy. Introducing the unknown can breed worry and stress. Develop a clear plan that you share with everyone so that everyone knows where you’re going before you begin. This plan should break your process down into smaller processes, so that the expectations and timelines for each change are well-known and thus less overwhelming.
Keep discussing your plan consistently throughout the change process. Talk about where you are now, where you’re going, and what obstacles are in the way.
It’s important to remember that no matter what you’re changing, you are at high risk for some of your old relationship issues to bubble up or even get worse. Having a clear plan of action is a great way to engender trust and minimize stress. After all, when things get stressful, we tend to revert to old, often unhealthy, behaviors.
Here’s one way to think about it: think about a time in your life when you wanted to start eating healthier. After a long, stressful day, did you always turn to that chicken and broccoli you meal-prepped at the beginning of the week? No. There were probably days when you called up a pizza place and ordered a cardboard box filled with cheese therapy, because that may have been what you did in the past to feel better after a stressful day.
Eating a pizza is one thing, however, unhealthy behaviors in the workplace are a lot more complicated because they involve other people.
Remember You’re a Role Model
Like it or not, you’re a role model at your organization.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in the C-suite or you’re a frontline manager with four people underneath you, you have the ability to shape the culture of your organization. Your behavior is being watched and, subsequently, modeled by the people around you.
If you’re approaching your relationships purely transactionally, this behavior will be reflected back toward you. More importantly, though, it will be reflected toward your customers. Investing in relationships with your employees will positively impact their interactions with internal and external customers, shaping a culture of respect and trust.
Focus on your people. Make connections with them. Build authentic relationships with open lines of communication, transparency and, most importantly, trust.
Take care of your relationships and they will take care of you. You’ll see the results, no matter how many changes you make.
Amie Deak is an advisor at IA who came to HR consulting after 20 years in healthcare. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in health administration. She has been a liaison between major healthcare organizations and the communities they serve, planned long-term strategic initiatives, and led large multidisciplinary teams. Her superpower is helping people activate their hidden strengths.