A good leader recognises that his/her organisation is ready for change and that he/she needs to be an example of that change. 

 Organisations experience change on an ongoing basis due to an increasingly volatile and competitive economic environment, technological improvements and workforce changes to name but a few. Failure to adapt to change can have dire consequences.

Leaders face a myriad of challenges when implementing change and there are two key factors worth special focus. Firstly, leaders have to recognise the need for change. Secondly, they have to communicate and drive the implementation of that change in such a way that it mitigates negative consequences. Such consequences include reduced employee morale, diminished commitment and increased cynicism, which all impact seriously on performance and productivity.

The link between change management and managing resistance to change cannot be ignored: Looking at ways of managing resistance goes a long way towards successful implementation of change initiatives. Fortunately, there are a number of models that leaders can learn from to overcome resistance to change by understanding the human response to change.

Leaders must aim to have employees understand the need for change without feeling overwhelmed by the change. What is seen as resistance to change is often just masked fear – fear of seeming incompetent, fear of losing one’s job or fear of the organisation’s inability to produce the right results.

Resistance to change can come from three sources:

  • Personal factors include personality traits such as low levels of openness to new experiences, current issues in an individual’s life such as illness or loss of a significant other, and concerns related to their personal external environment that threaten their perception of security.
  • Organisational factors encompass the perceived credibility of those leading the change, the perceived credibility of the organisation and the organisation’s history or track record with change initiatives in the past, as well as lack of trust in management.
  • Change-specific factors include the change process being followed (employees might see it as flawed or illogical), not including the people being most impacted by the change in the planning process, and lack of clarity regarding the reason for the change.

Introducing a change initiative creates uncertainty and concern in the minds of employees. Therefore the first step in implementing change is to create readiness for the change which starts with leaders providing evidence that the current way of doing things is not appropriate, sustainable or acceptable for the organisation.

Armenakis et al[1] explain that leaders need to create a compelling message that will answer the following five questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Is the solution being offered going to effectively address the problem?
  3. Are the senior leaders of the organisation visibly supporting the change?
  4. Do I, and the rest of the organisation, have the ability to effect the change?
  5. What is in it for me if we make the change?

Once leaders have crafted the overarching message that will start answering the above questions, they need to supply specific information:

  • Leaders need to describe the burning platform by, for example, showing competitors’ numbers or products or citing industry benchmarks.
  • Once this has been accomplished, employees need to be convinced that the proposed change initiative and the process being followed will effectively solve the problem. It is also important that employees feel that the initiative is in line with the organisation’s culture, structure and formal systems.
  • Employees need to be convinced that their leaders are serious about implementing the change. They will be very observant of the change leaders’ behaviour as well as the behaviour of their direct managers to see whether it is consistent with the proposed change.  They will also be critical of their verbal justification for the change.
  • Leaders need to provide employees with the necessary training, coaching and education that will empower them to implement the change. Without this, employees might doubt their own abilities to make the change and doubt their leaders’ ability to lead them through the change.
  • Employees need to be convinced that the gain of the change will outweigh the pain of the change; in other words, that they will be better off in some way after the change.

This leads to specific strategies that the leaders can follow:

  • Clarify that the suggested change is both necessary and the right course of action and augment the message with external information.
  • Be visible and available to answer questions (face-to-face interactions are best).
  • Provide training and education.
  • Address the potentially negative impacts head-on and mitigate where possible.
  • Allow individuals to participate in the change process.
  • Get directly involved in the heart of the change such as attending training with employees and listening with an open mind to their comments.
  • Communicate progress made during the process and identify and celebrate small successes.

By managing change-readiness throughout the change initiative and not just at the beginning, leaders can significantly improve the likelihood of success.

About the author:

*Cornell Solomon is a facilitator at TowerStone, a leadership centre whose vision focuses on empowering leaders to build a values-driven culture for sustainable success.

This article was first published in Boardroom magazine.

[1] Self, D.R and Schraeder M.  Enhancing the success of organizational change.   Leadership and Organizational Development Journal.  Vol 30.  No 2.  2009.  pp167-182.