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Change Through a Human Lens: Relationships, Resistance & Resilience

Change management is a well-established methodology—a thoughtful perspective on guiding organizations through evolutionary processes. Yet, in my work with clients across various industries, I've observed a striking pattern: the bigger the organization, the more mature the company and industry, and the more challenging it becomes to implement real and lasting change. Despite having brilliant minds and capable operators on board, change efforts often fall short of their intended impact.

What's missing from the equation? The answer lies in the often-overlooked role of relationships. Too frequently, relationships are treated as an afterthought, something to be addressed eventually. However, this is a critical misstep. Relationships, particularly strategic ones, have a profound influence on the success, effectiveness, and long-term impact of any change initiative within an organization.

I like to think of relationships as the connective tissue, the conduit, and the catalyst for change. They form the foundation upon which trust, communication, and collaboration are built. Without strong relationships, change efforts are likely to encounter resistance and fall flat.

The Human Side of Change

Most individuals are creatures of comfort, habit, and predictability. We find solace in knowing what to expect in our daily lives and work routines. Change, on the other hand, can be unsettling and even threatening. When faced with new initiatives, processes, or cultural shifts, people may close themselves off, both physically and mentally. I've witnessed this firsthand—walking into rooms where body language screams resistance, where individuals are unwilling to listen, let alone internalize, embrace, and act upon the proposed changes.

This is where the power of relationships comes into play. By nurturing and leveraging strategic internal relationships, organizations can create a more receptive environment for change. Strong internal relationships facilitate open communication across business units, encourage collaboration across disparate functions, and foster a sense of trust even amid competing priorities. When people feel heard, supported, and valued, they are more likely to engage with change initiatives and contribute to the collective success.

Key Areas Where Relationships Make an Impact

As we explore the strategic importance of internal relationships in change management, let's discuss the key areas where they make a significant impact. It's crucial to consider these aspects before, during, and on an ongoing basis throughout the change process.

Building Trust and Credibility

At the core of any effective and lasting change initiative lies trust. Do people trust that you have their best interests at heart, or do they feel like change is being forced upon them?

Strong intracompany relationships foster a sense of trust and credibility among team members and their leaders. When a team trusts its leader and feels valued in its work relationships, it is much more likely to buy into the change initiative and support it during implementation.

Trust reduces friction and resistance to change, as people feel confident that decision-makers are acting in their best interests. It's not about change being done to them, but rather a collective effort where everyone participates and contributes to the new direction.

Enabling Effective Communication

Relationships also serve as enablers of effective communication, which is the lifeline of most change management initiatives. In the absence of information, people tend to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions and speculations. This can lead to misunderstandings and rumors that hinder the change process.

Relationships provide the necessary channels for information to flow openly, honestly, consistently, and proactively. Leaders can leverage these communication pipelines to convey clear and succinct goals, address concerns, and disseminate information about the process at all levels of the organization.

It's essential to create communication channels at multiple levels of the organization, not just top-down. Ensuring that middle management is effectively communicating with their teams and bridging any gaps between executives and frontline employees is crucial for successful change implementation.

Enhancing Collaboration and Engagement

Moreover, relationships enhance collaboration and amplify engagement, both during the change process and on an ongoing basis. When people have positive working relationships, they are more likely to come together, brainstorm solutions, solve problems, and innovate. Collaboration becomes invaluable when it leads to better, stronger, and more efficient outcomes.

People walk out of collaborative meetings feeling energized and engaged, knowing that they have contributed to a better end result. On the flip side, weak or strained relationships can anchor progress and hinder the collaboration and engagement necessary for successful change.

Providing Emotional Support

Relationships also serve as a safety net, addressing the emotional aspects of change that are often overlooked in the mechanical planning of initiatives.

Change evokes uncertainty and stress for many individuals, and leaders must recognize and support their teams through these emotional challenges.

The potential negative impact of change on individuals' roles and responsibilities cannot be underestimated. For example, when an organizational structure is changed, it can lead to uncertainty and emotional angst among affected teams and leaders. Relationships provide the necessary support to navigate these challenges.

When people feel supported by their peers and heard by their leaders, they can better manage their concerns and remain productive despite the uncertainty. Stronger internal relationships provide that emotional support, helping team members navigate the transition and adapt to the new reality.

Creating a Change-Ready Culture

To create a culture that is truly ready for change, organizations must continuously nurture and strengthen their intracompany relationships. A culture built on strong relationships is more open to change, seeing it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

It's crucial to get the change process right from the onset. For instance, delaying a product launch to ensure the customer experience, onboarding, and training are properly handled demonstrates a commitment to a relationship-centric approach to change management.

This mindset is reflected in the language people use, with phrases like “Let’s figure this out together” instead of “What’s happening to us?” Team-building exercises, open forums, and feedback loops can foster a relationship-centric culture that embraces change and sees it as a necessary part of business evolution.

It’s important to note that customer success plays a vital role in change management and should be proactively integrated into the process rather than being an afterthought focused on fixing issues arising from overpromising and under-delivering. Building strong relationships with customers and ensuring their outside-in perspectives throughout the change process is essential for long-term success.

Leveraging Informal Networks

Finally, leveraging informal networks within the organization can significantly influence the success of change initiatives. Beyond the formal organizational structure, there exists a web of relationships—the favor economy, the grapevine, etc.—that can be tapped to gain insights into employee sentiment, spread positive messages about change, and identify informal leaders who can become change champions and advocates.

People are more likely to trust and believe messages coming from their trusted peers than from formal memos or emails. By engaging these informal networks, leaders can gather valuable information and build grassroots support for change.

Reinforcing the Why

Throughout the change process, it's essential to keep reinforcing why the change is happening. Organizations often focus on what's changing and how it's changing, but they don't talk nearly enough about why the change is critical to the evolution of the business. By consistently communicating the purpose behind the change initiative, leaders can maintain momentum and ensure ongoing support from their teams.

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