Can’t You See Change through Their Lives?

Leading change effectively takes perspective and compassion. You have to see the change through their lives.

Once more I witnessed a real-world example of what leaders should not do if they have to disrupt people’s lives for a major change. This experience convinced me that perspective and compassion are fundamental to any successful change. The local housing authority is redeveloping an old public housing project into mixed income housing through a multi-stage redevelopment. Admittedly relocating residents into alternative housing during this redevelopment is complicated by a lack of available subsidized housing units. That’s where my empathy for the housing authority ends. This is definitely a form of musical chairs but it’s no children’s game when families are uprooted.

Here are some insights I gleaned from watching this train wreck in change leadership. This is the second time I have extracted change leadership lessons from this housing redevelopment project. Read “How Would They Know” for more Signature i insights about effectively communicating change.

1.  Consistently communicate a timetable describing what will happen when and why.  If your situation is dynamic, explain this and over-communicate any timing changes to your plan. The first 34 families to receive a 120-day notice of their relocation should not have had to guess when this redevelopment might actually begin. Complaining as the housing authority director did that no one attended the community meetings is not an acceptable excuse if all meetings are run like the ones I have monitored. Even if you attend, you leave with almost as many questions unanswered as answered.

2.  Treat everyone affected by the change with respect and awareness of how much you are asking of them.   You are introducing a great deal of uncertainly into people’s lives. Show a little compassion. This really did happen. Every resident got a notice to attend this mandatory meeting—in error. With no apology, the authority director roll-called the residents of the first phase relocation and abruptly dismissed the rest. He might at least have taken 15 minutes to describe what would be happening in the meeting as a preview of what they might expect later and then given them the option to stay to learn more or leave. And the rudeness was just stunning to watch. Whether we are talking about public housing project residents, front-line workers in a company or rank-and-file members in an association, if they are affected they deserve your acknowledgement of their sacrifices to make the change possible.    

3.  Make the perspective of the people affected by the change a top priority.  What these residents need to know is where they will be living January 1. But we were more than 20 minutes into the meeting before the director moved away from rehashing the plans for the redevelopment using his scale model to talk about the specifics about the resident relocation. As one resident observed afterwards, he was really speaking to the community leaders who had crashed the meeting to monitor this process for justice and fair treatment. We were not the most important people, and it disturbed us that we seemed to be the only ones who understood this. But how often do leaders make this same mistake? They play to the people they perceive as powerful when they should spend most of their time with the people who will be affected.

Leaders can easily get caught up with the powerful in conversations and decisions and forget to see the change through the lives of those who will be most affected.  The “little” people in big changes too often get treated like an afterthought. And as this story illustrates, this is neither effective nor fair.