Leaders who get organizational change right know how to listen

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Written by

Patti Sanchez

Organizational change comes at a cost. It requires people to sacrifice something they value, whether it’s time, money, responsibilities, control, status, comfort, or relationships. The more your change effort disrupts those things, the more people will resist or even rage against it.

That helps explain why failure is so common, but there’s more to it. In a PWC survey of more than 2,000 global executives, managers, and employees, only 54% of respondents said their organizational change initiatives succeeded — and the most frequently cited problem (by 65% of those surveyed) was change fatigue. Because organizational change is near-constant in many companies, people are hit by wave after wave of it, and they’re left feeling depleted. Another big problem is difficulty getting people to connect with the larger vision: 44% of survey respondents said they resisted organizational change efforts because they didn’t understand the initiative, and 38% said they didn’t agree with the change.

So to spark and sustain organizational change, not just once but again and again, it’s clear that leaders have to communicate better. But how?

When presentations expert Nancy Duarte and I analyzed successful change initiatives, or movements in business and society, we found that their leaders invested a lot of time in early listening tours and then empathically and systematically articulated their vision to one stakeholder group after another — even in the face of pressure to act.

Take Anne Mulcahy, who stepped into the CEO role at Xerox in 2001, during a particularly tough time in the company’s history. She had to help Xerox recover from a series of missteps by previous leaders, including product failures and poor accounting practices, as well as an economic downturn that had pushed the company to the brink of bankruptcy. As Xerox hemorrhaged cash, Mulcahy felt pressure to show results right away. Yet she chose to spend her first three months talking with employees, understanding their concerns, and testing their reactions to potential solutions to the company’s problems.

What she learned informed her strategy for the turnaround, which she then communicated through a series of town halls, roundtables, and memos. In fact, she logged nearly 200,000 miles that first year as she traveled to each site to share the strategy and reignite enthusiasm about the future of Xerox. “The response was overwhelming,” Mulcahy said. “Defection slowed to a trickle. Hope rekindled. Energy returned.” And she restored the company’s profitability — the turnaround was a success.

Ray C. Anderson provides another good example. Anderson founded Interface, an international maker of carpet tiles. Employees, partners, customers, and most especially environmental scientists were skeptical when he declared his vision to turn a petrochemical-intensive business into a completely sustainable enterprise. So Anderson embarked on a campaign to win over the doubters and move them to reimagine the company’s processes, products, and role in the industry. Anderson studied the problem, sought to understand the perspectives of skeptics, and then articulated a compelling case for the organizational change.

Using a metaphor that he called “Mount Sustainability,” Anderson visualized his strategy by drawing a person climbing a mountain with multiple trails on its face, each representing discrete initiatives designed to tackle all the technical, operational, and cultural challenges that Interface’s movement faced. He labeled the summit with his ultimate goal, “zero footprint,” and called his transformation effort “Mission Zero.” Through listening sessions with key stakeholders and hundreds of speeches at internal and industry events, Anderson and his leadership team enlisted the support of employees to transform the company from top to bottom, and inspired suppliers, partners, customers, and policymakers to join their movement.

It’s critical to listen first, as Mulcahy and Anderson did, so you can understand what change feels like for those you’re trying to persuade. Depending on how ambitious your goals are — and how entrenched the resistance is — this may take months. Plus, the larger the scope of the organizational change effort, the more likely you’ll have to tackle it through multiple initiatives simultaneously, which further increases the burden on your teams and the level of motivation they’ll have to muster to make it all happen. So you’ll have to empathize with — and win over — many audiences.

It doesn’t always take months of research, however. For smaller-scale organizational changes, even one or two conversations with key stakeholders can yield insights that will improve the efficacy of your plans and demonstrate that you are invested in helping your teams succeed. With each conversation, your movement will gain momentum.


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Illustrated by Jonathan Valiente

A version of this article originally appeared in HBR.

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