In the late 2000s I remember watching the original ‘Shift Happens’ video with hundreds of colleagues at an annual conference. It dominated the evening’s conversations – it gave everyone a new perspective on the speed at which change was coming down the line. Even now 14 years on it is eye-opening. Much of what is featured is still highly relevant. Yet the stand-out for me is the focus on MySpace – a business that within a few years had lost its dominant position to become a relative footnote. An exemplar of rapid change, in a film about ever-accelerating change, did not, it seems, change fast enough to thrive.

The pace of change has seemingly been one of the main contributors to the so-called five generation challenge in today’s workplace. Central to this challenge is the fact that each of the generations present in the workplace as employees (and, for that matter, as customers) are notably different, displaying a broad range of behavioural and attitudinal variation. This may mean that some management tasks require an array of approaches to cater for the preferences of each generation.

This has big implications for how organisations are managed and how change is led. To help us understand the challenge, we asked our 100+ community of change practitioners their views on the ‘skills’ they felt would be the most important drivers of success for future change leaders.

The results were telling; in an algorithm age dominated by rapidly changing technology, empathy – that most human of all characteristics – emerges as the most important component (mentioned by 44% of respondents). Creativity (25%) and communication skills (19%) were a distant second and third.

In practice, of course, change leadership requires a combination of skills, behaviours and qualities to succeed. In discussing the results with members of our change community, here are some of the perspectives that dominated our debate.


  1. Change is a constant for everyone, unsettling for many

Change in the workplace has always been unsettling for many (perhaps most) in the workforce. Leaders who can understand employee concerns and can react appropriately are more likely to win hearts and minds – a vital element in the acceptance, and subsequent success, of change. A genuine understanding of how colleagues are feeling allows communication to be sensitive and tailored, allowing concerns to be addressed, heading off dissonance before it takes root and grows into active objections.


  1. Empathy alone is not enough

Empathy is important, but without other leadership skills such as technical understanding, goal setting and clear communication it’s of limited use. In practice, leaders require a very broad set of skills to succeed. Empathy has perhaps been played down in the past – indeed, some suggested it was considered a weakness and had no place in the workplace in some organisations they had worked for. In 2021 however it has emerged as a vital quality.


  1. Different generations may see leadership differently

Many of us started our careers in hierarchical environments with clear boundaries of responsibility and formally agreed work plans. This master and servant, ‘tell and do’ philosophy was understood by all and was accepted as the norm. Today, flatter team structures require a far more collaborative and organic approach to change with ‘tell and do’ far less common than it once was, and far more focus on individual preferences.


  1. We are increasingly encouraged to be ourselves at work

For those Generation X and Baby Boomers in the workplace, turning up to work often meant leaving feelings and personal problems at home. Work was largely a place to hack through the to do list. Work was work. Home was home. This past decade’s focus on ‘bringing your whole self to work’ means leaders are party to all sorts of personal, sensitive information many of which are most appropriately acknowledged and managed with empathy first and foremost.


  1. Skills vs. behaviours vs. qualities

Finally, it’s worth recognising that change management training in the past has perhaps been centred on methodology and associated skills. But skills are not behaviours. Behaviours are not qualities. Writing an email is a skill, interpreting a response with empathy is a quality and having the discipline to act on the information conveyed is a behaviour. Skills training provides the frameworks to deliver change, but without the right behaviours and some key qualities, progress will be limited and success less likely.

It’s clear really getting to grips with what it will take to lead change in this accelerating world is a large and complex subject that really does merit further debate.

What would you call out as critical components for change success? What experiences can you share where your approach to a common problem has shifted during your working life? Is empathy something that can be trained or is it innate?

Please join the debate in the comments box.