You’re the leader. You have a vision. It will require real organizational change. Now what? Empathic leaders may do better at gaining followers than encouraging resistors.
In their excitement for a new idea or fundamental shift in direction, leaders expect others will naturally want to follow and offer their support. Yet even when leaders share a passionate vision and a concrete roadmap leading the way, often it is either too little to build support or concern at the prospect of change outweighs optimism for a better library future. Every library leader will at some point confront resistance to change. In leadership sessions and conference hallway conversations, I will hear from leaders, new ones in particular, perplexed by their inability to engage staff or team members in a productive change process. They wonder if it is something they are doing wrong or simply a case of staff digging in their heels to maintain the status quo—or quite possibly both.
Change Process Gone Bad
In a talk at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, renowned biographer Walter Isaccson told the audience, “I think the best way to learn how to be a good leader…is studying other people. Everybody does it differently.” In comparing and contrasting the leadership practices of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs he encouraged attendees to study the stories and experiences of many different leaders across time and place. That recommendation resonates with me, and I recently came across such a story that may offer some leadership lessons. It takes place at the University of Florida Law School, where the new dean shared a vision and ambitious plan to move up in the national rankings. Faculty, instead of being inspired to move from good to great, accused their dean of using fear and retaliation tactics. Was the dean a toxic leader? Was the faculty totally change resistant? No doubt it was some of both that led to this dysfunctional conflict.
No Villains Here
Granted, higher education organizations may present unique cases. They can be notoriously change averse. Law schools may have even more resistant cultures. The University of Florida Law School strikes me as a classic case of the new leader who arrives with a vision of moving a good organization to a great one only to encounter entrenched resistance. No one is the villain here. The leader has the best of intentions. The faculty believe they too have the best interests of the community in mind. Where the tension exists is around how to become a better organization. Situations deteriorate when it becomes about personalities more than achieving a shared vision. The leader is out to get long-time staff. Workers just want to keep it the way they like it. The leader has no idea what it’s like to work on the front line. Workers want to create roadblocks to frustrate the leader. These accusations get us nowhere. We need to find common ground where all workers support change.
Getting to Change
So what can leaders to do to resolve the impasse? There is no dearth of change management literature. I’m partial to the book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath because it helps leaders understand why people are naturally change resistant and recommends strategies for overcoming it, such as starting with small steps and achieving tangible improvements as a foundation upon which more significant change may be built. Higher education leaders may adhere to the “garbage can” model of organizational decision-making, which advises to simply back off a change if there is resistance, be patient, and then come back to the idea when it may fit better as a solution to another organizational challenge or crisis. One path to resolution in times of change resistance I had not much considered is empathic leadership.
Give Empathy a Chance
Empathy as a critical quality for leaders was popularized in Daniel Goleman’s work about emotional intelligence. It is also a core component of Karol Wasylyshyn’s formula for achieving remarkable leadership. Elizabeth Borges, a women’s leadership program organizer and leadership consultant, recommends a particular practice, cognitive empathy. She shares three steps for achieving cognitive empathy. First, practice self-awareness so leaders are aware of their own emotions and can differentiate them from, and be in tune with, the emotions of others. Second, practice emotional connection to sense others’ emotions and feel them as well. Third, take action based on new insights and a commitment to change oneself. Together, these cognitive empathy steps may allow leaders to overcome their own biases or blindness to what’s preventing change, and approach it from a different perspective. The goal is to implement all three practices in order to be intentional about how we treat each other in the workplace.
Let’s Do This Together
Taking Isaccson’s advice, what is it that leaders can learn from the conflict at the Law School? How could the dean have done a better job of articulating the vision and engaging others to believe it could be achieved? Despite feeling an urgency that change is necessary now, perhaps the dean could have, upon sensing resistance to new possibilities, taken that step back to practice cognitive empathy. I believe it can be a valuable approach for leaders who want to achieve organizational change, but Borges advocates for us to embrace it to achieve better leadership. She states that “empathy isn’t always easy, and requires courage, especially since it often means connecting with people who aren’t like us.” There are multiple paths that leaders may take to bring workers together to achieve change. Cognitive empathy may deserve to be one of them.