What is ‘human-centred change’?

The common thread amongst leaders working in organisations of all sizes is that they all lead groups of individual human beings.  Human-centred change ensures that leaders remember this important fact and that they keep their people at the centre of change, rather than marginalising them.  And that they prioritise their own human needs, rather than putting the organisation’s needs first, next and last. 

How should leaders go about doing that?  We have six important principles for all leaders to follow when leading change: 

  1. Understand how humans deal with change 
  2. Be clear on your why and on the human impact 
  3. Know your strengths and use them 
  4. Communicate with clarity and honesty 
  5. Macro-manage don’t micro-manage 
  6. Stay open-minded and humble 

Understand how humans deal with change 

Each individual deals with change differently – some people will tell you that they really enjoy change, while others are open about how challenging they find it. In general though, humans experience change as pain. We are evolutionarily wired to attend to changes in our environment as threats and to respond by resisting, panicking, stalling or acquiescing, based on our life experiences to date. This is the fight-flight-freeze-fawn stress response. 

As a leader, it is vital that you understand that the first response to an upcoming change will likely be a threat response and that each human who works for you will have their own personal history of dealing with past threats that will shape their approach.  So don’t take people’s first response as an indicator of their general attitude towards whatever change you’re proposing. See it more as an ancient, pre-programmed survival mechanism.  They’re unlikely to fully take in the information you’re presenting at the early stage, such is the strength of their threat programming. 

Additionally, as a leader, it is well worth knowing something about the change or grieving cycle. There are many versions of this but the simplest is DREC: Denial, Resistance, Exploration, Commitment.

The first human response to change (after the initial threat reaction) tends to be to try and maintain the status quo by denying that the change is going to happen at all.   

After repeated exposure to messages about the change, this shifts to resisting – often accompanied by strong emotion and a negative attitude towards the change. This stage can get pretty dark as people become stuck in their anxiety and fear that they may not be able to navigate the change successfully, perhaps feeling that they don’t have the confidence or competence to make it. 

If your people are able to get past resistance, the next phase is exploration. Unlikely to be all at once, most people will accept smaller and simpler changes first as they start to accept the inevitability of what’s happening. Over time, this builds confidence that they can deal successfully with the changes that are needed. 

Finally comes commitment, often by stealth, as new habits are formed through engagement with the change. The newly formed habits build more confidence, and in the end, new habits become the new normal and the old ways of doing things become a memory. 

As a leader, this grieving or change cycle is pivotal to understanding human-centred change. Make sure that you keep it top of mind when leading people through change. It helps to explain a lot of what might otherwise appear at times as unpredictable and random human behaviour. 

One of the most important aspects of this principle is understanding your own response to change – what stage you are at, what your feelings are towards it, ensuring that you have the right support around you to be able to lead change successfully and finally, recognising that the pain of change can take its toll.  

So look after yourself, stay energised and focused by giving yourself enough time for reflection and rest.  Rather than going all Elon Musk and working every waking hour just to make it through. Better to role model human-centred change rather than ‘do as I say, not as I do’. 

Be clear on your why and on the human impact 

The compelling reason for change needs to be made clear to people. They’ll need to understand this from a business/organisational point of view. Is it because of the need for growth, to save costs, to survive or to get ahead of competitors? 

And what’s the overall vision that you’re aiming for here – paint a picture of how you would want the change to look to debunk any mystery for people, to help them see that the future picture of how things will be has its benefits. 

As well as the positive, be clear on the impact – what does it mean for each individual? What will they be asked to do differently, to learn, to give up, to stop doing? Acknowledge that this will take time and may get bumpy but that there is a positive vision to head towards on the other side.  

Know your strengths and use them 

We’ve just described how ‘stuck’ people can get during change, often from their anxiety that they won’t have the capability to take on new skills or new ways of doing things.  Strengths are the antidote.  Your strengths are ‘those qualities that energise you and which you are great at or have the potential to become great at’ (definition from Strengthscope).  

During change, this becomes vital information as it helps each individual to put together a game plan as to how they will navigate the change. Say your change programme needs someone to learn new skills or work differently. If that person has a Collaboration strength, they will be motivated to work alongside others to make the transition. If they have Results focus, they’ll want to know when they’ve got there and be clear on the criteria for competence. Someone with an Efficiency strength needs a plan to work to. And someone with a Creativity strength will want to come up with a way of getting through the change that no one else has come up with before. 

When you know your strengths and you help your people know theirs, you can get them directing those strengths towards change to build a sense of ‘can do’ rather than ‘done to’. And that fast-tracks change in a human-centred way. 


“Managing change is hard. Leading change is harder.”

Brian Strobel


Communicate with clarity and honesty 

One of the most common criticisms of change leadership is a lack of clear communication. People will often say that they didn’t know about the changes, what exactly was involved, when things would change, what it meant for them and so on, and so on.  

As mentioned earlier, during change people are likely to miss important details during the denial and resistance phases. So the leader’s communication needs to be clear, consistent, frequent and honest.   

Clear communication during change is particularly challenging for leaders as oftentimes, leaders themselves don’t have the whole picture. When that’s the case, it’s best to be honest that you’ll share information as soon as you get it and that you’ll do your best to get the information as soon as you can. 

And remember that you can pretty much never over-communicate. Keep your communication frequent, keep it clear and keep it consistent and you won’t go far wrong. 

Macro-manage don’t micro-manage 

People do change best when they feel they have control. When they can be architects of the change. When they’re trusted to lead it for themselves. With their strengths in hand and with clarity on the end-state you’re aiming for, you’ll get engagement and commitment most quickly by letting each person make their own decisions on how to get there.  

The human brain is in a constant search for clarity, harmony and stability and will create new brain connections to get there as efficiently as possible. As a leader, you can key into that by painting your vision for the change and then asking your people how they will achieve it, in their roles and in their teams. 

Getting into the detail of each person’s role and the minutiae of what they need to adapt risks disempowering and demotivating your people. Macro-manage, staying present as coach and facilitator, and people will get there that much faster. 

Stay open-minded and humble

As a leader, taking up a position of learning together, of spotting successes and celebrating them, of sharing new approaches, ideas and ways of problem-solving, can be a powerful catalyst for change. It brings a strong sense of togetherness, that we are all in this and making the best of it. And it will grow the sense of confidence that it can be done. 

To do this well needs open-mindedness and humility from the leader. You don’t need all the answers. Your people will have most of them. You don’t need to be right. Most of change is a greyish colour without an established road map. Sharing good practice and success when you see it will smooth and speed the path towards your vision. 

Summary

Leadership is often a lonely pursuit. Make sure that when you’re leading change, you have good advisors around you – someone who can act as a counsellor that you can confide in, a coach that you can bounce ideas with, maybe someone who’s been there before and who can act as a mentor.  

Human-centred change means putting yourself, as the human leading the change, in the strongest possible position for success.