Leading Change


People freely choose to make major life changes every day. We move, get married, start families, face challenges, change jobs, learn new technologies, develop new skills and so on. Not all of these changes are smooth but most of the time we seek those changes and make them successful. In our personal lives we usually make our own choices. Yet in organizations we often feel coerced; so we use the only power we have to regain control – resistance.

People don’t resist change – they resist being changed

Our organizational structures, processes and systems were built because of other changes that were required such as new organizational requirements, new technology, changing customer needs, etc. Many staff may remember that time; it may have been difficult for them. Yet they learned to adapt to these structures, processes and systems. However, most of us don’t want to go through the uncertainty of change again because we remember that it took time and effort to adjust to it.

As change leaders we must understand this. How were these changes managed? What went well? What didn’t go as planned? How did it impact employees? When we understand this, we can more easily work with their reasons for resistance.

The one thing we know about change is that it is constant

Today our organizations must ensure that its organizational culture, work environment and work processes are meeting the constantly changing requirements of our customers. The senior leadership team develop their strategies and create the plan to ensure their strategic plan is successfully executed. This often creates change. As you know, change is constant and comes at us from many different sources.

No sooner do we manage an organizational or departmental change, there is another one; even though we may have just gotten over the impact of the last change. Our challenge as change leaders is to be adaptive and to also help employees become more adaptive.

This means immersing ourselves in each change; always trying to understand its purpose, the best process to manage the change and the expected outcomes of the change. Successful change leaders ensure they are always engaged in the change and supportive of others through the change. This sounds difficult but actually makes leading and managing the change much easier.

The cost of failed change

Failed change means lost opportunity, competitive vulnerability, poor revenues, lost employees, increased cynicism and fear. Its residue is a hostile and toxic culture, where change resistance becomes the norm.

Change management’s track record isn’t getting any better and, isn’t likely to, if we don’t do different things. Research by McKinsey & Company, IBM and others indicate that:

  • Change failure rates continue above 60%.
  • Surveyed executives still say people are the main reason for failed change.
  • World economics are negatively impacting working and commercial relationships.
  • Technology continues to deliver faster, opportunity-rich and competitively challenging solutions that often impact jobs and working relationships.

Think about it. Change is getting harder. Many executive teams are scattered across different continents. A single team can span 6 or 12 different time zones. The days when everyone could sit around a table, roll up their sleeves, and get something done are a distant memory. This increases the risk of missed opportunities, different priorities, questions that never get asked, and concerns that never get addressed.

On top of all that, there tends to be less money for change management projects today. That means even though you have more complex and frequent changes to deal with, you likely have less money and fewer people to assign to those initiatives.

Anticipate and manage resistance to change

It is normal to experience resistance whenever there is change. Understanding that there will be resistance to change will help you anticipate resistance, identify its sources and reasons, and modify your efforts to manage the issues of change to ensure the success of your change efforts.

Resistance is actually healthy. Try not to react against it defensively. Understanding resistance forces us to check our assumptions and to clarify what we are doing. We must always probe the objections to find the real reason for resistance.

As a change leader, you must take the time to understand resistance and you may have to come at it from several different angles before it is conquered. You must understand what your employees are feeling, as well as thinking.

To start, recognize that change is a process and to manage it effectively we must follow the process. We must engage everyone in the change. It is not complex, but it is a journey.

Some ways to reduce resistance to change

  • Engage employees in the planning of the change by asking them for suggestions and incorporating their ideas.
  • Clearly define the need for the change by communicating the strategic decision personally and in written form.
  • Address the “people needs” of those involved. Disrupt only what needs to be changed. Help people retain friendships, comfortable settings and group norms wherever possible.
  • Design flexibility into change by phasing it in wherever possible. This will allow people to complete current efforts and assimilate new behaviours along the way. Allow employees to redefine their roles during the course of implementing change.
  • Be open and honest.
  • Do not leave openings for people to return to the status quo. If you and your organization are not ready to commit yourselves to the change, don’t announce the strategy.
  • Focus continually on the positive aspects of the change. Be specific where you can.
  • Deliver training programs that develop basic skills and build on these through processes such as: conducting meetings, communication, teambuilding, self-esteem, and coaching.

The 3 most effective methods of managing change:

  1. Define the outcome you expect
  2. Suggest a path to achieve it
  3. Ensure people follow your path though they may choose an alternative route to the same destination.

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
– George Eliot


Organizational change can improve performance, save money and increase employee morale. Now this may seem like a stretch, to combine the ideas of performance improvement while positively impacting our bottom-line and increasing employee morale; but these are the imperatives of organizational survival today. Lead the change, do not just follow it.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at mstanleigh@bia.ca