The Human Side of Change

When implementing change, company leaders often have the belief that they simply need to announce that a change will be made, and the staff will follow.

It’s easy to come to this belief. Planning for change requires a great deal of energy, time, effort, and staff, just to get to the point where change can be announced. For those involved, it creates a belief that when announced, everyone else will be on board.

So when change initiatives get announced, why don’t staff members recognize the change reality? Why don’t they understand the need and just follow management’s lead?

Simply put, they have not been directly involved.

So what can make change real? How can the company’s staff get involved with change?

Being Human

The simplest, and perhaps least common approach to making change real lies in the openness to being human.

People have families, friends, thoughts, emotions, fears, and desires. They come together each working day to engage in activities they perceive as valued and valuable. They care about what they do, who they work with, and the company they work for. They wonder about their careers, and where their current jobs will take them.

Yet, when they cross the company’s threshold, “people” somehow get transformed into “resources.”

Three steps

Three simple, yet powerful steps can bring humanity back into the change equation. These steps don’t take a lot of time or money, advanced degrees or high-priced consultants. Rather, they recognize that people make change real. They establish a respect for people and engage them in shaping future changes.

  1. Paint the picture
  2. Honor the past
  3. Demonstrate the future

Paint the picture.

Company leadership accesses information used to move the organization. They get readings from a variety of sources, compare and contrast information, and filter information into actions they believe the company should undertake.

The balance of the staff generally won’t have access to this information. Even if they did, they may not have the time or the inclination to fully appreciate it. They will continue in their daily jobs, without an overriding reason to change.

Leaders must paint a picture showing the company in its current state. This picture must discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the company. It should clearly show that the company needs to change to remain viable and vibrant.

Painting this picture requires a respect for knowledge sharing. Staff must be made aware of the information leaders see and the impacts these factors have on the organization. They must absorb, discuss, and respond to this canvas.

The picture can be painted in a number of ways. For example, with an airfreight company, I used respected industry experts, each reporting on different aspects of the industry, trends and expectations. These experts evaluated how the company responded to these trends. Their analysis provided a powerful message to the organization, and built a strong validation for change.

With a medical supply company, I helped the sponsoring executive craft a story. We used prose to paint a picture of the company’s history, its current situation, and its upcoming challenges. We purposefully left the story unfinished, allowing the staff to fill in the future picture.

Honor the past.

When I approach a consulting engagement, I use a process to establish where to begin. I haven’t changed this process in 15 years, and it continues to serve me well. It gives me grounding to fall with the client, and helps if I get caught in the middle of a difficult situation. When I don’t use this process, I don’t feel comfortable making suggestions or recommending actions.

If asked to change and use something new, I’d need to have this process recognized for having added value over time. I’d need to honor it, have it honored and, in my own way, mourn its loss. Only then would I be able to let go, to move on and embrace a new approach.

We all have some “thing” we hold on to at work. It may be a title, an assignment, a process, or anything else that we’ve performed repeatedly and grown comfortable with. This “thing” takes on a meaning beyond understanding; it’s become part of us. Collectively, their use has helped the company be successful.

The second change step, then, involves recognizing that these “things” exist, and that each person will want their personal items honored. If asked to change, each individual will need to mourn its passing – not as a loss, but as a stepping stone from which the future can be faced.

There may be a need to change, and that need can be explained and painted. Respecting the past and honoring its contribution enables people to create a space to remember, to move on from. It adds color and texture to the change canvas.

Demonstrate the future.

With an awareness of what’s facing the organization painted and the past honored, the company can now look to the future. In this third step, leaders share the options they see for the company, discuss the pros and cons of each, and be open about decisions made or anticipated.

This openness builds and extends trust, both in the decisions and staff involvement. It encourages important discussion on the future path. It allows the staff to become comfortable that the significant factors have been considered and evaluated.

This aspect of the picture can be painted in a number of ways. I’ve used role-plays, case studies, and other demonstration devices enabling staff to experience the issues and intended changes.

For example, with a mortgage lending client, I crafted a demonstration where project team members became mortgage loans. Each “loan” had characteristics relevant to the industry. The “loans” physically walked through their current processes, getting date stamped, audited, scanned, sorted, approved, funded, pooled, reported and sold for servicing. They visited different processing stops, with some gaining easy approval, and others experiencing issues.

The participants came away with a visceral understanding of their current processes. They directly experienced its positives, drawbacks, durations, and the customer’s perspective.

Then, using the same people and “loans,” we shifted to the future. Participants walked through the new processes so that they both heard about the intended changes and directly experienced them. They made suggestions for the future processes that helped improve it even more.

Using an experiential device completes the change picture. It makes it full, vibrant, deeply personal, honored and respected. It clearly shows the past, the present, and the path toward the future.


These steps address the human side of change. They require minimal set-up, cost and time, and can be personalized to company’s culture, or to suggest a cultural shift. They can involve an experienced facilitator or internal leaders to help guide the company through the process.

Collectively, they paint the picture for change, and treat people as valued and valuable in their own right.

Through them, people become involved with the reasons for change, have their past contributions honored, and help to shape the future.

About the Author

Alan Hirsch is a Certified Change Management Consultant and Registered Organizational Development Professional (RODP). He possesses over 20 years experience consulting with and advising clients on technology driven change initiatives. He can be reached at

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