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Empathy in Action: A Primer on Effecting Change

Jim Tincher Jim Tincher 03/29/2022

Change management is a critical skill when leading company growth and responding to digital disruption. As the processes, policies, technology, and culture needed to drive improved experiences shift, customer experience (CX) must shift, too.

Utilizing and combining these elements effectively is what makes customers want to spend more with you, stay longer, and actively refer others.

But of course, driving this transformation is easier said than done.

Effecting change is challenging enough in our personal lives, when we have only our own actions and goals to contend with. To guide an entire organization through a customer-centric transformation…well, like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is the picture that scenario brings to mind:

Change management is where most CX programs falter, because they fail to follow a deliberate change management process.

This is why I was so pleased to see that Genesys CEO and Chairman Tony Bates and Dr. Natalie Petouhoff dedicate an entire chapter to change management in their new book, Empathy in Action: How to Deliver Great Customer Experiences at Scale.

A new approach

The first ten chapters make the case for centering empathy when building new experiences that create better outcomes for customers, employees, and the company. Chapter 11 lays out the framework for turning that empathy into the concrete actions that will transform the way you do business. Change management is the key.

The authors begin with an insightful point: All those failed change initiatives have taken a toll on employees, leaving them burnt out and skeptical of yet another “big plan.” Effective change management needs to take this change fatigue into account and build a plan around the reality of our times, especially now that we’re entering the third year of the pandemic.

Overcoming change fatigue

Change fatigue was an issue long before Covid-19, but the last two years have exacerbated the problem. The accelerated scope and pace of change has also meant that failures have multiplied – and by extension, piled up faster. Average success rates now hover around 30-35%.

Motivating employees to change calls for a different approach. Tony and Natalie lay out three stages of the change process:

    • Endings: Where the old ways of doing business are left behind.
    • Valley of Despair: The in-between stage for employees. The old ways have been left behind, but new behaviors have not yet kicked in.
    • New Beginnings: Where employees have successfully come through the change process and adopted their new behaviors.

Not every company or project makes it through the Valley of Despair into New Beginnings. That’s why there are so many failed transformations. Empathy is critical in helping employees move through the Valley of Despair as quickly as possible, so they can arrive at New Beginnings. If you’ve built your transformational program with empathy, your New Beginnings should bring a significant improvement (as the authors put it, “new heights previously unimaginable”).

Patience is a virtue

According to the authors, core to the success of this approach is a leader’s ability to set the right pace:

“Often leaders see the future clearly and want to make changes faster than the organization can absorb. But having patience can greatly impact whether employees become engaged and support the transformation.”

Too often leaders with their eyes on the prize just don’t realize employees are left struggling to catch up, which leads to delays in adoption because their psychological and motivational needs haven’t been met.

Successful leaders can manage this by moving from “being the leader [involved in] change” to being an “empathetic, active, and adaptive leader of change.’”

Accomplishing this requires leaders to undergo their own change management process to move from “command-and-control” leadership to servant leadership. That shifts the focus to empathy for employees.

Empathy in Action is peppered throughout with “blind spot” callouts, which pinpoint issues many companies face. The one that explained why leaders and employees move at different paces really struck home for me:

“Leaders often move through a change faster than employees because what they do on a daily basis doesn’t change. The changes in strategy, process, and technology directly affect the daily life of employees, requiring more time to learn new things and adjust to the changes.” [Emphasis added.]

Set the right pace

For example, in a software rollout, it’s unlikely that executives spend much hands-on time using the software. So any change has little impact on them. That’s a situation that doesn’t organically foster empathy. I suspect we can all recall examples of this from our own experience in corporate America – I know I certainly can!

Ironically, CX leaders may be even more likely than other leaders to expect employees to hustle through the Valley of Despair stage. Our focus on customers can make it easy to overlook the impact of our initiatives on our fellow employees.

But given that the employee experience can make or break the customer experience, it’s critical to avoid this pitfall.

After spending time talking with customers and designing a new customer-focused future, it’s easy to assume that everybody sees the future you do. Whether that future means new technology (chatbots or pizza trackers), behaviors (different ways to greet customers or a script-free support call), or organizational structure based on journeys, we in CX can be so laser-focused on how these changes will improve results for our customers that we fail to think through the impact on employees.

Change vs. transition

Something else I hadn’t considered is Tony and Natalie’s distinction between “change” and “transition.” I’ve always conflated the two concepts, but they break them down this way: Change is the item you can see (e.g., new software or an updated process), but transition is the internal process employees go through to adopt the new change.

The transition requires the effort, but also presents the opportunities that will increase your chances of success, such as informational interviews with employees to understand what isn’t working. These allow you to adapt your change management efforts efficiently and effectively when needed.

To help your company get through the Valley of Despair as smoothly as possible, the authors offer a model for a leader to manage the change process. Unlike the ADKAR or Kotter change models I’ve written about in the past, this model focuses on leaders themselves, discussing their role in bringing about change.

Their seven Proven Practices for Leadership are:

    1. Understand the Business Case for Change
    2. Start with Your Executive Team: Make the Commitment, Move from Involved to Engaged
    3. Engage All of Your Organization’s Leaders and Prepare Them for the Journey
    4. Build a Broad Understanding of the Change Process
    5. Evaluate and Tailor the Change Effort
    6. Develop Adaptive Leadership Skills and Capabilities
    7. Create Change Leadership Plans

What I like is how the book gives a prescriptive plan based on Tony’s  executive experience effectively implementing change and Natalie’s background in management consulting. For example, they recommend a specific workshop strategy to cascade change through the organization.

Build the desire for change

They begin, as does Kotter’s model, by recommending a compelling case for change. And they call out another “blind spot”:

“Leaders often miss that just saying what the change initiative is isn’t enough. Leaders must create a financial and emotional business case for change so compelling employees are inspired to get up every day and give it 100 percent.”

This is based on their claim that 80% of employees will resist change unless given a compelling, personal reason for why it is important. To accomplish this, it’s critical to show the case for change on an individual basis. This tracks back to the ADKAR model’s focus on building the desire to change.

This need to build individual desire requires a deliberative process that starts with the executive team, then engages every one of an organization’s leaders.

Employees are key

As the CX champion, you cannot, by yourself, tie the benefits of change to each employee. Just imagine the CX leader for a large banking enterprise trying to customize the change message for each individual employee. It’s just not possible! But each individual leader can tie the need for change to their people, and in doing so, it can cascade down to the individual level.

The authors and I both appreciate this quote from John Maxwell: “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” After reading Empathy in Action, one might update it to: “Change is inevitable, but an employee’s transition isn’t.”

This reminds us all that moving to a new customer-focused future requires deliberative planning to guide employees – arguably your most important asset when attempting to improve the customer experience – through the transition. Fortunately, it also offers a strategy to accomplish that.



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