Leadership and Change

Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing. — Warren Bennis, Ph.D. On Becoming a Leader

Today's business world is highly competitive, thus change must be a naturally occurring activity in a growing organization.

The way to survive is to reshape to the needs of a rapidly changing world. Resistance to change is a dead-end street . . . for both you and the organization. Customers are not only demanding excellent service, they are also demanding more. If you do not supply it, your competitors will.

Organizations are reshaping themselves to become more agile and flat to meet the needs of their customers. These organization's top leaders know they cannot throw money at every problem and that they need highly committed and flexible workers.

As a leader, you need to emphasize action to make the change as quickly and smoothly as possible. “Resistance is futile,” as the Borg from Star Trek like to put it.


To prevent yourself or your organization from becoming “stranded on the mudflats of an obsolete ideology” (David Lodge), you must become a champion of change.

Organizations normally go through four main changes throughout their growth (Klepper, 1997):

  1. Formative Period — This is when a new organization is just getting started. Although there is a founding vision (the purpose of the organization), there are no formal definitions. This is just as well because there should be a lot of experimentation and innovation taking place. These changes of creativity and discovery are needed to overcome obstacles and accomplish breakthroughs.
  2. Rapid Growth Period — Direction and coordination are added to the organization to sustain growth and solidify gains. Change is focused on defining the purpose of the organization and on the mainstream business.
  3. Mature Period — The strong growth curve levels off to the overall pace of the economy. Changes are needed to maintain established markets and assure maximum gains are achieved.
  4. Declining Period — This is the rough ride. For some organizations, it means down-sizing and reorganization. To survive, changes must include tough objectives and compassionate implementation. The goal is to get out of the old and into something new. Success in this period means that the four periods start over again. Failure means the end of the organization is near.

For some organizations the four periods of growth come and go very rapidly, for others, it may take decades. Failure to follow-through with the needed changes in any of the four growth periods means the death of the organization.

The Japanese have a term called “kaizen,” which means continual improvement. It is a never-ending quest to do better. And you do better by changing. Standing still allows your competitors to get ahead of you.

Change Acceptance

Throughout periods of changes, which is just about all the time for a good organization, leaders need to concentrate on having their people go from change avoidance to change acceptance. There are five steps accompanying change (Conner, 1993):

This is why a worker's first reaction to change is often to resist it. People get comfortable performing tasks and processes in a particular manner. This comfort provides them with the security that they are the masters of their environment. Some of the things that cause them to fear change include a dislike of a disruption in their lives, looking like a fool by not being able to adapt and learn, their jobs might become harder, and a loss of control.

Leaders can help the change process by changing their employees' attitude from avoidance into acceptance. This is often best accomplished by changing avoidance questions and statements into acceptance questions:

From “Why?” to “What new opportunities will this provide?”
When they ask “why,” focus on the benefits that the change will provide them and the organization. Do NOT feel uncomfortable if you are feeling hesitation about the change too . . . you are also human. By spelling out the benefits, you will not only comfort them, but help to convince yourself too.
From “How will this affect me?” to “What problems will this solve?”
Anything that prevents something from being better is a problem. Let them know what the problem is and how they will be part of the solution.
From “We do not do it this way.” to “What would it look like?”
Show them, don't tell. Stories can provide explanations, compassion, and encourages your team to ask and answer questions.
From “When will this change be over so we can get back to work?” to “What can I do to help?”
Get them involved in implementing the change. Help them to become part of the answer, rather than the problem.
From “Who is doing this to us?” to “Who can help us?”
Focus on the challenges that must be overcome. Ensure that you enlist help from other departments and colleagues.

Change is further complicated as it does not always produce a direct adjustment. Each employee's attitude produces a different response that is conditioned by feelings towards the change. In a classical experiment, the lighting was improved in a factory on a regular basis (Roethlisberger, Dickson, 1939). The theory was that better lighting would lead to greater productivity. As expected, productivity did rise. The lighting was then decreased to show the reverse effect, that lower productivity would occur. However, the opposite occurred; productivity increased further! It was not until the lighting was down to the equivalent of moonlight (0.06 foot-candle) that an appreciable decline in output was noticed.

Of course, it was not the change in lighting itself that caused the higher output, but rather an intervening variable. This variable was diagnosed as the employee's attitudes. That is, when you introduce change, each employee's personal history and social situation at work will produce a different attitude towards that change. You cannot see or measure attitudes, but what you can see and measure is the response towards that change:

Change + Personal experience (nurture) + Social situation (environment) = Attitude + Response

In the factory workers' case, productivity rose because they were being observed. This is known as the Hawthorne Effect (named after the factory where the research took place). It means that the mere observation of a group tends to change it.

Although each person will have a different response to change (personal experience), they often show their attachment to the group (social situation at work) by joining in a uniform response to the change. For example, one person's personal experience might be so strong that she works harder when a change is introduced, while the rest of the group's social situation is strong enough that they threaten to strike because of the change.

Although each person in that group might want to something different, such as place more demands, ignore the change, work harder, etc.; the need to belong to a group often sways individuals to follow a few individuals — “we are all in this together.” Sometimes the response towards change is influenced mostly by personal experience, at other times it is swayed by the social situation, as John Donne stated so elegantly:

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. — John Donne

Leading the Change


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Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a very good plan,” he shouted, “I have a dream!” You must provide passion and a strong sense of purpose of the change.

Feelings are contagious. When someone around you is feeling blue, it can bring you down. Likewise, when someone is passionate about something, it can have an inspiring effect. Build the change so that others want to be part of it. When you give them part of it, also give them the authority and control to act upon it. Share the power so that they do not feel powerless. You want them to feel useful and enthusiastic. Make them feel needed, that the change could not happen without them!

Kurt Lewin (1951) theorized that there are three stages to change:

Old ideals and processes must be tossed aside so that new ones may be learned. Often, getting rid of the old processes is just as difficult as learning new ones due to the power of habits. Just as a teacher erases the old lessons off the chalkboard before beginning a new lesson, so must a leader help to clear out the old practices before beginning the new. During this part of the process you need to provide a small amount of coaching as they are unlearning the old ways and provide a lot of cheerleading to give them the emotional support they require.
The steps to the new ideals are learned by practicing:
What I hear, I forget.
What I see, I remember.
What I do, I understand.
— Kung Fu Tzu.
Although there will be confusion, overload, and despair, there will also be hope, discovery, and excitement. This period requires a lot of coaching as they are learning and just a little bit of cheerleading due to the affect of arousal.
The new processes are now intellectually and emotionally accepted. What has been learned is now actually being practiced on the job. Provide coaching as required and use a lot of cheerleading to set up the next change process . . . remember it is continuous process improvement!

Next Steps

Learning Activities:

Next chapter: The Learning Organization

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Conner, D. (1993). Managing at the Speed of Change. New York: Random House. Note: He based his model on Death and Dying by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

Klepper, S. (1997). Industry life cycles. Industrial and Corporate Change, 6(1), 145-182.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row.

Roethlisberger, F.J., Dickson, W.J. (1939). Management and the Worker. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.