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Anatomy of a C-Suite Change Initiative Failure: Re-Engaging Employees by Closing “The Empathy Gap”

Anatomy of a C-Suite Change Initiative Failure: Re-Engaging Employees by Closing “The Empathy Gap”

Twelve senior leaders in a large health insurance company I consulted for spent nearly 18 months in active, often heated debate over the direction their organization should take to
address then president-elect Obama’s promise for health care reform. Each team member possessed strong opinions—believing that he or she alone saw the big picture and had the right answer for what the future required. Finally, after countless shouting matches, numerous planning retreats, hundreds of hours of research, and various consults with some of the brightest minds on the subject, the team reached breakthrough, and a new corporate strategy was born.

A week after entering détente, the C-suite leaders sent out an email announcing the new strategy, and they asked every employee in the company to get behind it. But employees weren’t quick to get on board. The strategy got little traction. In fact, some employees seemed hostile about the new direction. That’s when one leader called me to complain:

“Why are some employees so damn territorial and resistant to change?” he inquired.

Sound familiar?

Welcome to the C-suite, a position where it’s not enough simply to know everything and advocate for what you believe to be right. You also have to know how to communicate and sell changes to the people who implement and breathe life into your strategy.

A very common and often overlooked cause for the change communication breakdown between senior leaders and the front line happens because of an empathy gap.

The Empathy Gap. “Why are some employees so damn territorial and resistant to change?” the senior leader asked with frustration when his company’s change effort failed to produce quick, positive results and met instead with pushback.

After empathizing with the senior leader that even the best strategies fail without engaged employees to implement them, I reminded him that it took his 11 colleagues and him more than a year to see eye-to-eye on the new corporate direction.

Then I asked him a rhetorical question: “How, I asked, can you expect your employees—employees who were not in the room when the talks were held, not invited to the planning retreats at posh resorts, not privy to the same discussions or facts or experts, and not asked for their opinions before being told their company was undergoing a sweeping change that directly affected their world—to jump on board overnight?”

I concluded by saying this: “You haven’t shown your employees empathy. Until you close the empathy gap, I would guess that your employees will continue to act out for a while.”

Bridging the Gap. To help the senior leadership team address the empathy gap, I assisted them in crafting a strategic communication plan--a plan where C-suite members held town hall meetings with all employees in the company. Here are four steps you can use if you find yourself in an empathy gap that feels like “Us Versus Them”:

  1. Admit: “We screwed up.” At the start of each meeting, a member of senior staff apologized for the lack of transparency in discussions that had been held during the last year. Some leaders used humor; others just said, “We didn’t manage this change in the best way, and we are sorry.”

Leader, don’t underestimate the power of showing humility. Apologies don’t erase the past, but they can begin the process of reopening closed doors.

2. Disclose: “We want you to know everything.” The senior leader took these meetings as an opportunity to build context, insight, and knowledge by starting with a clear, direct case for change. Leaders explained the process and discussions that took place behind closed doors. The leader then explained that if it took 18 months for 12 senior leaders to arrive at the answers, it would also take time for each employee to adequately process what lay ahead

Leader, make your employees insiders. Treat them with the same respect you’d want given to you.

3. Communicate: “We know that you have feelings about this.” I reminded senior leaders that they had 18 months to vent, debate, and argue with their peers. They needed to offer a similar outlet to employees.

Leader, authentic dialog can’t be scripted. As uncomfortable as it might be for you to talk to your employees without a net, you close the empathy gap by asking them to tell  you how they feel. You don’t have to hold answers for everything, but you do have to give them a chance to process, challenge, and seek clarity. Doing so helps them move forward.

4. Offer: “We could use your help.” After going into detail about the new strategy, the senior leaders asked employees for help. “What are we missing? What didn’t we think of? What can we do to make this work?” The majority of time in this meeting involved asking employees to share opinions and ideas.

Leader, you are never closer to understanding the nuts and bolts of the work than when you are on the front line. Ask employees how to make things work, and how to make things better. Capture every thought, and pass them along to an expert to evaluate and vet.

John C. Maxwell nailed it when he said that, “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.” As a member of the leadership elite, you have limitless access to information you can use to mull around your head, create strategies, and make informed business decisions. As a leader, there’s no doubt that you know a lot, and you carry the most current business intelligence and analytics around in your head. But don’t forget to use your heart too. After all, your employees can’t readily see what’s in your head, but they can get a good sense if you’re at least trying to use some heart to guide your actions. Start by closing the empathy gap.


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Scott Carbonara is a speaker, author, and consultant known as The Leadership Therapist for his diverse background working as an award-winning crisis intervention counselor, followed by chief-of-staff of a multi-billion dollar healthcare company. He is the author of four leadership books including A Manager’s Guide to Employee Engagement (McGraw Hill 2012), and specializes in leadership topics pertaining to employee and customer engagement, and change management.

One Comment

  1. Great points, Scott.

    It’s unfortunate too many C suite behaviours fall prey to the dysfunctional strategic formulation, in assessing what “people” have to say. I couldn’t agree more on the failure of strategic executions linked to the ’empathy gaps”. I don’t know why C suites even bother to go to those “SWOT” retreats, without sound data on what the “internal” environment has to reveal.

    HR have a big challenge on this leadership challenge – trying to get them to shift their paradigm in accepting Empathy and Emotional Intelligence, beyond the soft and fluf rhetorics.

    Yes, the key to any execution is transparency – communicating the mission or goal in a manner that gets deep into the bones of people that they go that extra mile in giving their best whilst remaining engaged against the odds until the desired result is achieved.


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