Redundancy Thoughts : Empathy

We HR folks are always running into extreme personality types, at one point or another. That’s the lot of a change agent. A CEO might view an organisation and see a group of people, with the ones he or she knows best in clearer definition that the rest. In HR, we don’t get the luxury of a selective view. When we bring change, we encounter each individual as an individual, and its our responsibility to find that persons tipping point and bring them on board for the change journey. The challenge of course, is when it is the change leader themselves that could use some input 🙂

We stand outside the process, and view each participant as a person undergoing change. The CEO will view everyone as either being “affected by change” or not “affected by change”. The employees do the same from the their own point of view of the person being affected, or not. Generally the line managers are both implementing change as per instructions, and being affected by it, so they are the ones caught in the change management “sandwich”. What is true is that everyone is affected, regardless. There are actually no “unaffected” people in a workplace restructure (unless they are sociopaths of a sort). How this process is worked out will affect everybody in the organisation.

Following on from the previous post about dignity and hope, I would like to offer further thoughts around that topic, focussing on the matter of empathy.

When a person is affected by change, it is entirely natural for that person to see the change process from a positive or negative view, based on how it is affecting them personally. It is very important to say at this point that the most insulting thing a change leader can say to an affected employee is “Nothing personal, this is just business”. For the employee affected, what the company is proposing is not business. It is entirely, completely, absolutely and incontrovertibly, very, very, very, VERY personal.

Two things have just happened to that employee:

Firstly, the skies have darkened and a financial nightmare is approaching really fast. Time lines and personal plans that might have been relaxed, have condensed into a NOW. Urgency and fear have arrived without warning.

Secondly, you have communicated to that employee that “Actually, now that we think about it, you are useless to us. Go home and tell your family. By the way, sorry, its not personal, its just business. You understand.”

An absolutely devastating one-two.

“It’s not personal, it’s just business” is the rehearsed – and may I say worse than pathetic – line of a leader incapable of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is easy, and it is cheap. It makes the sympathiser feel better, but it usually does absolutely nothing for the affected person. Empathy is deeper, richer, and far more substantial. It can actually cross the emotional divide between the empathiser and the affected person. It connects through shared experience and pain.

“Sympathy” is “I’m sorry for your pain”. “Empathy” is “May I share your pain”.

This is where change leaders run into difficulties. The same way a general on the front line is required to sends troops to their deaths, a change leader can make decisions that end peoples employment, which is a figurative “death”. Their heart is exposed, whether they like it or not. And employees are looking for the “heart” of the leader. The difference is always found in the leader whose heart grows heavy with each decision; each interaction, as opposed to the leader who says “Right. That’s done, lets move on now”. The one where writing the letters is done slowly, personally and with great care, as opposed to a mail-merge.

Restructuring makes employees tired and can quickly lead to demotivation. Their world has been shaken and the illusion of stability and security has made way for uncertainty. In companies that regularly restructure (and in Australia/NZ there are many; this is a cowardly way of managing poor performance, solving personality issues, political manipulation etc.) this can be exacerbated. Employees know their jobs are only as secure as management’s next “clever” idea or the next hidden agenda.

There is a “Sword of Damocles” over people’s jobs and lives, which arrives suddenly but does not disappear nearly as fast. As Cicero said: there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms”. Restructuring, especially where it is not well defined, communicated, executed as communicated, and then clearly ENDED, creates a sustained fearfulness that eats away at the heart of employee’s commitment.

Here is where empathy comes in:

The people that are affected by the the CEO’s next clever idea, mostly live their whole lives paycheck to paycheck; knowing just how many trips a tank of fuel will get them; how much food they can eat each day to have food at the end of the fortnight; scared of the financial impact of sudden doctors visits, sick or injured pets; car trouble, and broken household implements. House maintenance, holidays, car maintenance are all carefully budgeted for and planned, in terms of cash flow.

Often, families sail close to the wind and can be caught in a cash flow crisis not of their own making. They can enter such a devastating process already stressed, fearful, unable to cope with the new workplace stress because financially, the precipice was already near. There is no backlog of savings or a nest egg. It takes a certain earning capacity to easily create those resources, and not everyone has both that, and the discipline required. These are people naturally and rightly concerned about sudden unavoidable expenses. Insecure and dependent on you as the CEO for their security.

The sudden news of restructuring and redundancy does not bring the shadow of financial pressure nearer, with time to prepare… it darkens it immediately into night!

A quick but revealing question – does the change leader/proponent even begin understand what that kind of life is like? I am fairly confident they do not. Does it affect how the chess pieces are moved about? I have worked in more than one company where the CEO’s unclaimed traveling expenses are equal to two employee’s annual salaries. Can that person really understand? I am not confident they can.

So my challenge to change agents, and change leaders, is to find a way to do what you must do, with empathy. With shared feeling, shared understanding, and deep caring. It doesn’t change WHAT you do, but it changes HOW you do it.

In my next post, I will consider the “How”.

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About Vaughan Granier

Just Thinking...
This entry was posted in Marriage, Personal Growth, Work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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