Change is part of the norm for organizations. It can show up as implementing a new process or system, a new organizational structure, or new leadership. Personal and family life also involve change that mirrors organizations such as new rules, role changes, and transitions like moving or entering a new stage of growth or development.

While there are many change models such as ADKAR, Kotter’s model, and McKinsey’s 7-S Framework, it can be easy to get so focused on the model that we overlook the fundamental key to change: people. Even then, we can overlook a fundamental key to helping people change: relationships.

Consider a change you’ve made or been part of. Perhaps it was learning a new piece of software, getting a new boss, or following a new rule. Next, think of the people who either mandated the change or helped you implement or adapt to it. Were they people who you trusted, respected, and made you feel cared for? Or, the opposite? Chances are that the change was easier to embrace if you viewed the people behind the change positively and had good relationships with them.

Good relationships are crucial to making change successful. If we believe someone has our best interest at heart, if they genuinely want to see us succeed, and if they know and treat us as a person instead of an object, we’re much more likely to want to change.

I recently met with a work team located in another country that faced resistance for years in trying to implement new programs. It didn’t matter to the recipients how great their programs were, what data they could provide to demonstrate their effectiveness, or how smart the team was. What made the difference was the team making the effort to build relationships, understand their culture, and demonstrate genuine care. Through their continued efforts to build relationships they developed trust, and this trust led to recipients embracing the team’s ideas, programs, and recommendations. It opened a window that would have otherwise remained closed and resulted in both parties working together on opposite sides of the glass.

On the contrary, I also recently witnessed a professional, multi-million dollar consulting firm try to implement process changes on behalf of senior leadership. Their approach was to make some quick assessments, tell people what they should do differently, and implement a “thou-shalt” approach. This approach was mirrored by senior leadership, who just made a few token appearances during implementation. As you might assume, the recipients felt objectified and resisted the change. All they had to do was nod and wait it out for things to return back to normal.

Building relationships takes time, and there is no shortcut. It also has to be genuine and without agenda. For example, waiting until you need something from someone before getting to know them will likely backfire. Instead, we can start getting to know the people who work with, for, and above us. For senior leaders, this means getting out of the office and visiting employees. For managers, it’s things like building coalitions with other managers. For individual contributors, it’s asking leaders for things like informational interviews.

That said, building relationships doesn’t need to involve hours of bearing one’s soul or being best friends with everyone. Learning and using people’s names, smiling when passing people in the hall, asking people for their ideas and recommendations, or a genuine “how are you doing?” can go a long way. And, things like asking questions and listening are always helpful. Then, when it comes time to change, we’re much more likely to say “yes.”

In exploring ways to build relationships that support change, consider the following questions:

  • When you reflect on times when you’ve wanted others to change, how did the quality of your relationship affect the outcome?
  • What gets in the way of you building relationships with people at work?
  • What kinds of change are you wanting to implement, and how can you leverage your relationships to support that change?
  • What are some approaches you can use to increase trust and connection with other people, both professionally and personally?