Successful change? Start by liking your employees.

Sympathy is a weapon of influence in organizational change. Implementing change in organizations is largely about influencing others. Influencing is not something that happens by chance, you can create it. It is science and art at the same time.


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Successful change? Start by liking your employees.

Influencing in 6 principles

Robert Caldini, American professor of marketing and psychology, has summarized the science around influence into 6 principles that explain how people can be influenced:

* commitment and consistency: the power of commitments, once you have taken the first step, you more easily take the next,
* social proof: looking at what others do, if many people do or think something, it will be good,
* sympathy: follow who is nice, if someone is sympathetic, they are more likely to be liked,
* authority: have respect for authorities, if they say something, you are more likely to take it for granted,
* scarcity: the rule of shortage, if there is little of something, you want it faster and preferably,
* reciprocity: the old give and take, if you give something away, you get something back faster.

I’m going to look at these one by one from the perspective of organizational change. Today I’m focusing on an initial influencing weapon: sympathy.

The rule of sympathy

The rule of sympathy says that we are more likely to respond to requests from people we like. For example, we are more likely to buy a car from a sympathetic salesperson who is physically attractive, has similar interests or background, gives us compliments, subtle or otherwise, and whom we see or hear about regularly.

After all, the four elements that promote likability are:

  • physical attractiveness: handsome is good. We automatically start assigning a number of positive traits to handsome people, without knowing why;
  • similarity: people who are similar to us in terms of interests, origins, relationships or whatever, we find more likeable;
  • giving compliments: positive comments lead to more sympathy for the flatterer;
  • contact and cooperation: we are most fond of people or things that are familiar to us.

Can we do anything with this in the context of organizational change?

The rule of sympathy can apply both to the people who guide change in organizations (project and change managers), and to the managers who take their teams along in the change, and to colleagues who start working on it, and to the solution or the project itself. For people and for things.

The most important weapon of a (change) manager is that the employee sympathizes with the change.
If you want to bring a change to your organization, you want it to be seen as something positive and to be embraced. You want to show the ‘fun’ side of the change. Sometimes it happens naturally, but most of the time you will have to use some influencing techniques. Then it’s not unwise to think about how you can make the change and the people involved ‘likeable’, without going into overdrive or over-selling. Subtly use some influencing techniques that reinforce the message.

How to do it. By looking at the sympathy rule differently. Cialdini also explains it in the video below. The rule #1 in sales (and driving change is often a piece of selling) is not having the customer like you, that’s rule #2. The #1 rule is to like the customer. I couldn’t agree more. If you stay in true sales mode even in organizational change, selling the change primarily rationally to your employees, you’re not touching them. You only touch them by appreciating them. Because they feel that you have their best interests at heart. By thinking along with them about what exactly they need in order to do their work well.

This is why design thinking in organizational change is so rewarding. Design thinking starts from empathy for the user, whether it is the customer or the employee. It’s about looking at change from the eyes of the employee and tailoring support accordingly, rather than just looking at what needs to be accomplished by when from an organizational perspective.

This is why managers in organizational change are so important. They are the ones who are closest to their people and can have the greatest impact if they can work from empathy. If you want to influence behavior, you need this trait. But it has to be genuine. Just being a good person with kind words. By giving compliments or finding similarities you can get people to go along with change. It doesn’t have to be spectacular at all.

The immediate manager can make a connection between the change in general and the benefits to the individual employee, since they (should) have the closest relationship. Talk about the mutual goals and benefits of the change initiative.

Now let’s zoom in on what makes something or someone likable, but specifically in the context of organizational change.

Physical Attractiveness

It helps when the communication around a change is done by, say, a handsome or charismatic director. The principle of authority (another influence technique by Robert Caldini) also plays a role here. If it is within the realm of possibility (especially credibility) then you can steer this a bit by making a good choice in who you let deliver certain messages. Authenticity and credibility are then important. If people do not trust a certain manager, he may be physically attractive, but not likeable. Then the message will not get through. As Cialdini pointed out, make sure you like them. So make sure that the messenger is someone who has the best interests of the people they are addressing in mind and that this has become evident in their actions beforehand.

The attractiveness of the change/solution itself is certainly just as crucial. Give attention to the visual of the solution and to its user-friendliness. Make it enjoyable through images and text. The use of attractive logos and communications are marketing techniques that may find their way into organizational change a little more often.


Similarity is the factor very subjective and in a large organization, where you have to deal with various plumes, it does not seem easy to use similarity as a technique. But by deploying ambassadors, change agents or tribes, you ensure that all employees have colleagues they are willing and daring to address or from whom they accept advice and feedback. The more diverse your organization (something that many companies are now aiming for), the more complex organizational change becomes, because you are dealing with different world views. That’s why it’s important to always think about change from the perspective of diversity and to ensure that everyone is involved. In communication, different examples and stories can be used to stimulate similarity.


Within organizational change, both change managers and team managers can play an important role in this. By giving positive feedback when people are already doing well or have taken a first step in the change. Not so much because compliments can make them find you more sympathetic (which the research shows according to Caldini), but mainly because it creates positivity in the context of the change and thus increases the chances of success. Digital compliments, which are fully automated (such as a ‘Keep up the good work’ after completing a learning module, for example) also appear to work, according to the same research.

Contact and collaboration

In a previous article I already talked about the importance of repetition, because we are more fond of things or people we see regularly and are familiar with. This is the mere-exposure effect. The aspect of collaboration is important here. For example, it appears that regular contact in the context of competition or rivalry actually fuels antipathy. However, when cooperation is encouraged, it leads to more sympathy for each other. This is why cocreation works so well for organizational change. Put policy makers, managers and employees together to see how the change can be shaped. If, for example, cross-functional cooperation is an important criterion for the success of your change, make sure that from the start of the change you get people from across departments thinking and working together on the change. This will increase the sympathy for each other, making it easier to achieve your goal of cross-functional cooperation.

With influence techniques, the line with manipulation is fine, that is clear. The goal and the intention are therefore important criteria. If you use them as simple techniques to increase your influence, authentically using what suits you, and from empathy with the employee, with the goal of making the change work for the organization and your team, and with the intention of helping to improve the employee’s life, then there is nothing wrong with them.