6 ways to lead change through stronger human connections

Change efforts within organisations often focus heavily on the 'technical' elements of change, such as structures, processes and documentation. These elements are important for any significant change initiative, however change is fundamentally about shifting people's attitudes and behaviours. As humans we are social beings who are wired to connect with other humans, therefore it follows that strong human connections are critical for leaders to achieve successful change. 

Here are six lessons learned from personal experience to help you create stronger human connections within your organisation or change programme:

  1. The personal touch. As a leader of change, giving your time to speak to people, listening to what they have to say and, importantly, acting on what you hear demonstrates positive qualities such as inclusion and trustworthiness. This appeals to people's need for social status, recognition and fairness, which is understood to be as important to our brains as our physical status. Try small but genuine gestures to value others like remembering names and making eye contact when people are speaking to you. Be open and transparent. Show some of yourself as a leader that makes you human, for example: your humour, your worries or your aspirations. Ensure that any feedback you receive is followed up in the eyes of the person or people that you are engaging with, even if you decide not to act on all of it.

  2. Listen. Interrupting when people are sharing their thoughts, or allowing yourself to be distracted in conversations (for example, by email, phone or self talk), can break rapport and lead others to conclude that you're not really listening. Instead try to concentrate completely on what the other person is saying. Listen to the words, notice body language and, where appropriate, repeat back a summary of what you've heard to check and demonstrate understanding. When people feel listened to it leads to greater awareness, self reflection and a willingness to co-operate. As the person who is listening, if you practice this consistently you will receive richer insights and build trust with the people that matter.

  3. Be curious. We each have our own version of ‘the truth’ in any given situation, influenced by our values, personality and life experiences. Our own version is not necessarily the 'right' one. Seek to understand what is behind others' opinions by asking open questions and being genuinely curious. It could give you some really great ideas that you hadn't already thought of. It also gives you a better chance of getting to the real root cause of a problem. For example, you may discover that someone's obstructive behaviour is really due to a clash in personal values and a perceived threat to their personal status. You then have something tangible to work with.

  4. Empower others to create your change strategy. Sometimes it can feel quicker to develop solutions in a vacuum or with a small group, however this can lead to heavy resistance once it is presented publicly. Going back to the importance of inclusion, people need to recognise that they have been a part of creating a solution that affects them. Instead, consider presenting the challenge itself and inviting a range of possible solutions. Have coaching conversations with departmental leaders to develop and explore their suggestions. Encourage them to do the same with their direct reports. Provide facilitation, time and space for teams to refine their ideas and develop plans. Back this up with a mechanism for reward and recognition that spans all organisational layers. Have faith that this longer route to creating your change strategy will pay off as greater engagement in the change itself.

  5. Conflict can lead to a better connection. If someone isn't 'playing ball' then don't ignore it. Name it. Explain what you're perceiving and explore what's going on for them. Try and get to the root cause of the behaviour or attitude using open questions and active listening. Don't be afraid to challenge poor behaviour but also seek to address the root causes in a collaborative way where you can. If you can manage this conflict productively, in my experience, you have an opportunity to build a stronger, more trusting relationship with that individual as a result.

  6. Engage continuously. Often change programmes are launched with a flurry of communications activities which can then tail off, leading to a loss of momentum and a loss of trust that the change is worth engaging with. Many of us will have invested our energies into some kind of engagement activity as part of a change initiative, which apparently didn't lead anywhere. Or we may have logged onto a change programme website to see that it hasn't been updated for months or more. The approaches described here must be part of a continuous, genuine effort to connect with people. Keep having conversations, keep listening and keep making people feel included on a personal level.

Creating human connection is an art not a science. Whilst this topic runs much deeper, these points are intended to be easy to understand and apply in practice. How much of your current change effort is focussed on human connection vs 'technical' change elements? Is this balance right? How could your personal leadership approach adapt to achieve greater change success through human connection?