I was recently reminded of a time when a leadership team I was on was in the midst of planning a re-organization. As re-org’s go, this one was a relatively small one – no jobs were being eliminated.  To the team impacted, however, it was still “big” because a number of team members would be transitioning the jobs they knew (and liked) to other people and focusing on new responsibilities.

Another leadership team member and I had a private discussion before the announcement and I started to share how I expected some team members may feel about the changes. I was caught off guard when my colleague interrupted me with, “I’m not touchy-feely like you, I don’t care about how they will feel.”

Now, I’ve been described a lot of ways in the course of my career, but “touchy-feely” has never been one of them. I wasn’t talking about the team’s feelings about the re-org simply to “share”.  I brought it up because it is necessary for us, as leaders, to understand the team’s feelings in order to effectively orchestrate the change.

This wasn’t “touchy-feely”, this was empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – and, surprise, surprise, people have feelings at work. I understood that most people on the team would not immediately feel good about some of the changes being made. Yes, we still had to make the changes despite how people felt about it, but we couldn’t ignore that it wouldn’t be universally well received.

We needed this team to understand the change and quickly ramp up with their new roles and activities. Their feelings about it would have a very real impact on their level of engagement in making the change successful as quickly as possible.

How might they feel?

It just takes a moment to reflect on how people may feel about an organizational change. It’s likely any leader has personally lived through 1 (or 17+) re-orgs in the course of our careers and like method actors, we can remember how it felt.

Upon hearing the news, people would likely feel surprised and potentially confused. They may feel nervous about being asked to transition away from the work they know into new activities with new bosses. They may feel angry about an organizational change happening “to” them outside of their control. They may feel disappointed about having to transition projects they enjoyed and pick up ones they don’t feel as enthusiastic about. And, they may feel all of these things at once or none of them at all…

As a leadership team we needed to be empathetic

The team would be feeling these things and more, so we needed to acknowledge it and, appropriately, help them deal with it. In this instance, we both publicly and privately acknowledged that people could be feeling out of sorts in the face of this change. The leadership team made ourselves available for days afterward to review the “why” behind the changes and to help mentor everyone through it. Personally, I may have covered 15+ miles in walking meetings (my preferred 1:1 meeting style) in just a few days time.

And in the end, it was time well spent. Fairly quickly job responsibilities were transitioned and people were ramping into their new roles. Investing the time to recognize how people will be feeling and to acknowledge and validate those feelings helped to smooth the process along. Additionally, mentoring this young team about how to constructively handle inevitable workplace change is something they will benefit from throughout their career.

My colleague may have cut off the conversation with me because he believes feelings are unnecessary in the workplace or because he was uncomfortable with things deemed “touchy-feely”. I didn’t let that stop us from doing the right thing for our employees during this organizational change. Empathy is a critical leadership skill especially during times of change.