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How To Champion Change During Trying Times
Or Why A Little Empathy Goes A Long Way
Rising interest rates.
Return to office mandates.
Supply chain disruptions.
Bloodsport mistook for partisanship.
The persistent specter of COVID variants.
And all of it happening during record-breaking temps driven by an ongoing climate crisis.
The last several years have been a roiling emotional tumult. So many of our best-laid plans have been disrupted or delayed by the unexpected. Is it any wonder that people are hesitant to voluntarily take on yet another change?
Change is difficult even in the best of times. The seminal Who Moved My Cheese? was pointing this out on its release two decades ago, a transitional period to the new millennium rife with its own stress and trepidation. Tossing in our "unprecedented times" with an additional side of social media amplification, and being a change agent is harder than ever.
During periods of stress, it is perfectly logical for people to seek stability in their familiar routines. Even if what lies on the other side of change offers a clear benefit, the threat of upsetting a sub-optimal yet stable status quo may be a bridge too far.
Your peers aren't dumb. They understand that there may be better ways to do things. They don't usually lack information. However, demanding people "get over it" or "return to the office without exception" is not helpful. Even if it comes from a place of good intent, telling people what to do is the opposite of empathy.
Overcoming inertia and moving people toward a better future can't be done by fiat. Having empathy requires asking open questions - those that can't be answered with a curt "yes" or "no". Questions like "What excited you last month?" or "What support do you need coming up?" require psychological safety. If that exists, the answers to these questions can provide a wealth of insights - the values, the concerns, and even what problematic behaviors might be holding the organization back.
Our listening shouldn't be passive. As our peers share, we choose what to reflect. We should seek to highlight the elements that speak to the truth: even if treading water is helping us survive this moment, it is not sustainable forever. Further, what we reflect should re-enforce how the positive change is not a disruption or deviation to what they hold dear but aligned and additive.
That requires some discovery and creativity. It is much more challenging than just ordering a subordinate to "suck it up". However, to have sustainable, real change, we need to start with where people are. Only once we know where to start can we begin building the bridges to where we need to go.
I've written so much more about this for Better Bits. But, bottom line, our organizations are not made of cogs. They are flesh and blood beings; beings enduring a sustained traumatic event. Before we write off their perceived indifference or apathy as an insult to our engineering efforts, we need the skills to empathize with the stress shaping their emotional responses.
Producing better software depends on it.
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