Change happens in the details.

We think in generalities, but we live in the details. ~Alfredo North Whitehead, British philosopher

Change happens in the details. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been trying to communicate with someone who has a different first language than you do? What do we do, we instinctively talk louder thinking that will somehow help the other person understand what we are saying. I carry this image with me frequently when an organization is undergoing a major change and wondering why employees are not quickly jumping on board.

Organization leaders announce a change and believe they articulated it clearly. Then to their dismay, everyone just keeps doing what they’ve been doing guided by the same beliefs and attitudes they had in the past. In other words, nothing changes.

The leader then keeps repeating that same announcement, believing that if they just keep saying it over and over employees will change. Kind of like talking louder and thinking that will help the other person to understand what you are saying.

Should leaders repeat the vision for the change? Yes, absolutely. However, only doing that is practicing what Whitehead profoundly stated, “We think in generalities, but we live in the details.”

Change happen in the details: two things leaders can do.

  1. Leaders need to listen to identify the details. What many leaders forget is that communication, especially in the midst of a change, is two-way communication. They should be listening more than they are talking. If leaders don’t listen, they won’t know what details employees are living in that will impede their willingness or ability to change.
  2. Leaders then need to respond with empathy and action. Notice I said respond with empathy, not react to. Reacting by trying to justify a change is many times perceived as de-valuing employees’ questions, concerns, or perceived needs. It may not only slow the change process, it may cause it to come to a screeching halt altogether.

You can’t listen to the details if you’re not asking probing and thoughtful questions. Questions like, “What do you think?” or “Do you have any feedback?” are not probing and thoughtful. Think more detailed. “What gets you excited about what I just presented?” “What concerns you about what I just presented?” “What have I missed?”  

Responding with empathy should go beyond acknowledging that employees’ thoughts are valid (which you should certainly do). It means taking action by giving them the tools and the ability to make change happen. Again, think in the details.

For example, upon the completion of a strategic plan for a client, those in leadership realized that their mid-level staff need to be better project managers. They could tell them, “you need to work on your project management skills,” which will likely have little to no impact. Or, they could develop tools like trainings, user groups or forums, and job aids, to name a few, to give those managers both the skills and ability to become effective project managers.

Manage the journey.

William Bridges said, “Change comes more from managing the journey than announcing the destination.”

Change happens in the details. It requires bold grace to listen for the details and then respond with empathy and action.