Leading Organizational Change

leading organizational changeDue to the demands of the New Economy  organizational change is running ram­pant in corporate America.

Unfortunately, most of it isn’t working, or at least, not as well as it’s sup­posed to. Success of formal change programs in Fortune 1000 companies is rare. Reports indicate that more than half   are      disappointments or outright failures. Whether the change initiative is called, “reorganization,” “downsiz­ing,”or “re-engi­neering,” the results are the same.

The process usually starts with an enthusiastic top management push delivered to a skeptical group of employees. Then, meetings are scheduled, training conducted, until everyone is in­volved in the process. Unfortunately, the inevitable eventually hap­pens, commu­nications break down; mile­stones are missed; results don’t meet expectations; and manage­ment is left wondering what happened.

A Matter of Perspective

One of the core problems in leading organizational change is a simple matter of perspective. Management and em­ployees often view change differently. Management sees change as a challenge and an opportunity to strengthen the organization for the long haul.
For many employees, change is seen as disruptive and intrusive.  They didn’t seek it so they rarely welcome it. Change to them is threatening.

This difference of perspective is compounded by management misjudging the effort required to win acceptance of change. To avoid this problem, manag­ers at all levels must learn to view change through the eyes of their employees. This insight can give man­agement the leverage needed to move the change process forward.

New Rules

Resistance to change is rooted in a lack of under­stand­ing and in a loss of empowerment. Change means the rules have changed. Most people withhold support until they’ve figured out how the new game is going to be played. This usually occurs when people know the rules of the game and how the score is kept. Most people know how to win in the existing culture, but aren’t sure in the emerging culture. The quicker management can explain the new rules and show their people how to win, the sooner they’ll embrace the change.

The key here is understanding. For employees to under­stand the new rules, manage­ment must be prepared to answer several critical ques­tions. When change occurs, the first thing people want to know is “What’s going to happen to me?” This is a natural extension of a person’s self-preservation. People want answers when they feel threatened or unsure of their future. Even if its bad
news, people deserve answers. Keeping people in the dark only compounds the problem and increases their resistance.

Be committed to resolving the “WGTHTM” questions as quickly as possible. Giving people closure on these issues helps them move past resistance and begin focusing on the future.

Once the general issue of “What’s going to happen to me?” is resolved, management must answer the following questions more specifically:

  • What’s my job? (What am I supposed to do?)
  • What resources do I have? (What support can I expect?)
  • How will my job be evaluated? (What are the standards
    and how will I get feedback?)
  • How will I be compensated? (What financial rewards, recognition,
    and personal satisfaction will I receive?)
  • How hard will I really have to work and are the rewards
    worth it? (What’s needed to survive and thrive?)
  • Is this a place where I belong? (Are my values aligned
    with the organizations?)

These questions provide the explicit rules for winning in the new culture. Answering them resolves a lot of fears and anxiety that employees are apt to feel.  However, it usually takes some time for people to fully trust the new rules. That’s why most employees don’t fall in line until the unspoken rules of the game become clear and management answers the final question, “How do you really get things done?” Like teenagers testing a curfew, employees will test the stated rules until they know that they are real. Once this is accom­plished, people can start focusing on results instead of the rules. Even the best planned change effort can experi­ence resistance. And, manage­ment must be prepared to lead it.

Resistance is the most common side effect of change. Resistance is the organization’s way of main­taining the status quo. It’s a good barometer for mea­suring the impact of change, but it is not an appropriate gauge for measuring the appropriateness of change.  Just be­cause people resist change doesn’t make it bad.  When you initiate change, you will encounter resis­tance. Keeping this in mind, you’re able to handle resistance better as it occurs.

Remember, the 20%50%30% Rule

When change occurs, most people fall into one of three camps.

The first camp is those that embrace change and see it as an opportunity for growth. This group represents about 20 percent of the people.

The second camp is those people who are unde­cided about change. They try to be neutral until they figure which side of the fence they’re on. This group makes up about 50 percent of an organization.

The third camp is people who resist change. They fight it and often try to ensure that the change fails.  This group represents
about 30 percent of a group. Resisters are often responsible for holding the whole organization back because they usually
get the most attention from management. Unfortunately, paying undue attention to resisters only reinforces their nega­tive behavior. The more attention they get the more compelled they feel to justify their position. This often makes it even more difficult for an organization to move forward.

The key to leading organizational change is to focus on results. You may never get 100 percent buy-in from all people. For some, the buy-in can only come after they see results and have proof that the change was appropriate and successful.

Casey Stengel, the former manager of the New York Yankees, once said, “The secret to managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” This applies to business as well. A manager must decide to “win with their winners and not lose with their losers”.

Help People Understand Change

Education and communication are your first steps in defeating resistance. Give people the information and rationale that’s driving change. Also, relate the change to the organization’s mission and core values. Finally, help people see it from their perspective. It should make sense from where they sit.

Even when you explain it, everybody may not accept it. Some resisters reject anything that they don’t agree with. For these people, the goal is understanding, not necessarily agreement. If they understand, they can eventually accept it.  Some people won’t get it even after you’ve explained it several times. Don’t give up. ..keep communicating until they do get it. Remember, your job isn’t just to explain change, but to help people understand it.

Change Should Have A Purpose You’re Committed To

A clear mission and goals can be a good antidote for the fear that causes resis­tance. The clear­er and more compelling the future seems, the easier it is for people to leave their doubts behind. Aimless mis­ery is a tough sell. Make your change goals easy to see and provide a destination that makes the change seem worthwhile.

Once people realize that change is a done deal, their resistance usually fades away. When people realize you’re not just “giving change a try” they generally accept it.

Remember, it takes very little to keep the hope alive in the hearts of resisters. They continuously look for an opportunity to believe that the change isn’t for real.  Resisters won’t become believers until they see tangi­ble evidence that you mean what you say.

A critical measure of success in leading change is your commitment. Once you’ve weighed the options, given others a chance for input and settled on the best course of action. You must be resolute, even passion­ate about your determination to follow through.  If you can’t be excited about where the organization is going, how can you expect your people to be?

Don’t try to reduce resistance by softening your posi­tion. This is taken as a sign of weakness and becomes a rallying point for resisters. Keep in mind that in times of uncertainty, actions speak louder than words. If pushed to the limit, you may have to make an
example of someone who resists. When this happens, make it a high profile person and make it public. Your objective is to send a message to the others to get on board.

Change often has casualties. This may seem heart­less but it’s true. Resister resist because they choose to do so. They are the ones who put you in a position to choose them or the change effort. If your change effort is worthy, the choice is an easy one.

Be a Role Model

In times of change, people gravitate to the people who have the most conviction about the future. Certain­ty usually outweighs desirability. This is why resisters can win the hearts of the 50 percenters. Resisters often have more conviction to the resistance to change than managers have to the change effort.

Don’t initiate change you yourself aren’t committed to. People will look to you for answers and to show them how to act. If you’re certain, confident and act with congruence, they will follow. If you lack those qualities, they will seek those that do.

Remember, you can’t manage change, you can only lead it.  When you lead change, people will follow.  So, if you’re in charge of change, lead it. The resisters will either join the parade or voluntarily drop out.


  1. Great points, Phil. I have been trying to help a non-profit change their culture recently, and it’s no cakewalk!

    I am going to pass this along to their leaders.

    • Henri,
      I agree. People have a lot vested in the way things were and are very frighted by the unknown.If leadership has the strength of their convictions they will succeed. If not they organization is in peril.