Humans are not Dolphins: How Relationships Define Change

November 23, 2017

Change is expensive – especially when it fails

Change management is a significant strategic and operational challenge at most organizations. CEB (Gartner) offers some commonly agreed lowlights. According to CEB, “the average organization has undergone five enterprise changes in the past three years.” Only 34% of these projects are successful, while 16% deliver mixed results and 50% are considered outright failures.

The consequences of change management failures are sunk costs, anxious (and often downright unhappy) staff, and a worrying inability to shift the organization in the intended direction.

Human relationships define change success

Much of current change management theory skips over the crucial fact that change processes must involve complex interactions between networks of human beings – the most notoriously difficult to manage of all animals.

Instead, change theory veers strongly towards process orientated concepts, such as the Dolphins versus Wales construct. This idea suggests that decision makers should implement change programs in steady, small increments, mimicking the regular breathing pattern of the dolphin rather than the one-gulp method of the whale. Approach a change project in one breath at your peril, the theory says, quite correctly.

However, even though it has clear process merits, such thinking misses the human dimension of change. The risk is in approaching change projects as a monologue, not a dialogue. When this happens, the emotions and experiences of change recipients are overlooked by those driving the initiative, who focus mostly on getting the process right. When leaders don’t approach change as a series of conversations and tasks, employees quickly become resistant to the idea of change itself. They see themselves as subjected to external, and largely uncontrollable, forces, and the successful implementation of the project suffers.

Relationships must be embraced, not ignored

Humans aren’t dolphins – and we shouldn’t seek to train them as if they were. In other words, incentives and rewards aren’t enough. For change programs to be effective, people must be engaged in all their talent and complexity. This understanding challenges leadership to foster a culture within their organization that ensures everyone is engaged in, and receptive to, change.

Many executives will have to re-develop their skill sets to support employees effectively through transition. In summary, they need to learn how to:

  • balance communication – dialogue with everyone, at all levels of the organization
  • foster a working environment where questioning and learning is welcomed
  • ensure the company understands leaders are available and approachable
  • manage relationships within the company regularly by opening up space for discussions, idea sharing and debate
  • lead, coach and guide junior staff members

This skills development process is as worthy of an investment as any of the other more obvious change tools, such as new project management software. As leaders develop and apply human connection and relationship skills, their employees are engaged and become supportive rather than obstructionist. They become, in other words, part of the change. Only when this happens will the leading-edge project management software reach its full potential.

Strong leaders validate

The need for validation is not something we outgrow; rather, it’s an essential part of who we are, and how our brains work. This is a simple but important insight, applicable both in the office and the home. Those who validate us, engage us. And those who engage us hold the keys to our hearts and minds, and, eventually, our actions.

In corporate life, and especially with the confusion brought about by change programs, we don’t often see validation. Instead, leaders impose programs, correct behaviour and convince recipients of the validity of the change. We do this quite easily, because it makes us feel like ‘things are happening.’ What we often miss is the possibility that many of these things are counter-productive – because workers have not been engaged in the process.

Great change leaders create dialogue rather than simply dictate. They validate their people and acknowledge their experiences throughout change.

High functioning leaders often have instinctively strong relationship skills. From the organization’s perspective, the big question is how to actively foster this ability to foster relationships across the C-suite, whether executives have inherent talent or not. The answer to this question is simple. Leadership training.

Conclusion – developing relationship skills delivers returns

Cognitive science continues to throw up new insights as to the complexity of the human brain and the importance of human relationships to successful project execution. These insights result in a regular stream of media articles, such as this example, addressing the positive impact of strong human connections on work place performance.

The trick for decision makers is to realize that fostering positive human connections isn’t a matter of deciding to be chattier around the mythical water cooler. Rather, it is a defined skill area that can be actively developed, and that delivers bottom line returns. When this realization is acted upon, the odds of change management success improve dramatically.


Barry Pokroy is the founder and leader of Circle & Square Inc. and a partner of Farber. As a Clinical Psychologist, he has in-depth knowledge and experience in adapting the insights of psychological theory to the demands of the corporate environment. Barry can be reached at 416.496.3079 and barry@circleandsquare.me