• How do the two characteristics of empathy and accountability interact with each other in a change initiative?
  • Implementing change starts with trying to create accountability
  • There is a reason for people’s resistance to change, and if you really want to move them, you have to find out what that reason is

One of the known benefits of age is that after you’ve accumulated a few years under your belt, you learn some things. In many cases, you wish you’d known these things earlier – and might have done things differently with that knowledge. Unfortunately there is no substitute for experience, and we are all in the same boat when it comes to needing to “let time take its time” before making us all a little smarter.

This brings me to the topic of empathy vs. accountability. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Accountability is the state of being answerable, responsible – having to report, perform, explain or justify.

How do these two characteristics interact with each other in a change initiative? Well, I’ve been fortunate to work on a number of transformational projects throughout my career. Whether it was creating a new offering with alliance partners, designing a new sales and marketing process (five times with five different sales force automation systems, I might add), creating a new value selling process or even starting a new business unit, these initiatives were all exciting, impactful and difficult.

Seriously, this stuff is hard to do – but why? Because in every instance, one of the requirements of success was getting other people to do something that I needed them to do. I had to hold them accountable to execute and support the change, and these individuals did not work for me. That’s pretty hard. In fact, that led to my personal definition of change management, which is “getting people who don’t work for you to put their hands on the keyboard and do something differently when you are not watching.”

Where do accountability and empathy come in? Well, implementing change starts with trying to create accountability (that sense of obligation that makes people feel compelled to change). So you communicate, train, share, rationalize, persuade, measure, communicate and train some more. But the behavior doesn’t change. One option at this point is to try to put more pressure on the teams to force behavior. Okay, so you do that. And it still doesn’t work. What is going on?

Here’s another one of my paradigms that came with age: everyone wants to be successful. I truly believe that very, very few people wake up in the morning and decide, “I want to be awful today.” It just doesn’t happen. So if you believe that, and you also believe that your initiative is going to yield great improvements, then why aren’t they doing what you want?

This is where empathy comes in. There is a reason for people’s resistance to change, and if you really want to move them, you have to find out what that reason is. I’ve found that empathy – putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and really finding out what else is going on – is hugely important. I’ve heard several stated reasons for resisting change: “My boss told me not to,” “These five other things are more important right now,” and even, “I wasn’t sure what to do and didn’t want to ask and risk looking stupid.”

Lo and behold, these are all solvable problems and can be addressed with further clarity, prioritization and support. The other benefit of taking an empathetic approach is that you’ve listened. You can say, “Oh, I understand now. Let’s work together to figure it out.” Taking time to listen and understand builds trust, which will substantially increase your success with change for this situation and many others.

Even though humans can pass knowledge by writing things down, and should be able to get smarter without the passage of time, there is simply no substitute for experience. You have to take some lumps and figure it out as you go through it. So for what it’s worth, consider both accountability and empathy in your change efforts and strategy. The time that you invest in empathy will pay dividends, and you’ll probably gain a few friends along the way.

What are your thoughts on empathy vs. accountability? Leave us a comment below and tell us about your challenges and successes.