4 Ways Leadership Affects Change Management

Change is instrumental to growth. In today’s fast-based business environment, no organization can afford to sit still and rest on its laurels. It’s said that the only constant is change, and that adage is truer today than it ever has been in the past.

Regrettably, many change management efforts are unsuccessful for a wide range of reasons, and the success rate for transformation programs is under 40 percent. Employees are frequently suspicious of new technologies and methodologies, and leaders may fail to set a good example. Also, people at all levels might resist giving up control, and the goals might be unrealistic. One of the biggest obstacles is “change fatigue.”

What Is Change Management?

Change management is a broadly defined concept, but at its heart, it is the systematic approach to embracing new technologies, processes and methodologies. It is difficult because it often requires cultural change — people need to learn new ways of interacting with their peers and leaders. Proactive change management will not just effect change, but also control it and help people adapt to it, at both the organizational and individual levels.

The Role of Leadership

Harvard Business Review (HBR) says that leadership is often the biggest source of resistance to change. Leaders understand the business case for change and are some of its biggest advocates. However, change often requires leaders to cede control, and that might diminish their power in the organization; for example, if decision-making moves to managers and front-line workers. “In response,” writes HBR, “leaders often unconsciously respond with behaviors that reveal their struggle to adapt to the very change they are championing.”

This reluctance to change is regrettable because leaders must set the tone for any change management initiative. If leaders do not embrace change, others might feel emboldened to ignore change as well. Ryan and Robert Quinn, in their book Lift: The Fundamental State of Leadership, state that true leadership comes from setting a cultural example that inspires others to follow. Inspiration can’t just originate from the bottom up; it also needs to come from the top down.

What Leadership Can Do

To set an example others can follow, leadership should consider the following actions:

  1. Deal directly with resistance. If leaders want to effect change, they must listen to and encourage participation from the people who will be directly affected. Resistance can take a serious toll on productivity and lead to other negative outcomes, such as people leaving the organization or requesting transfers. Author Torben Rick outlines several questions to guide discussion with employees. The list includes:
    • What do you think about this change?
    • Do you know why these changes are taking place?
    • How do you feel about the change?
    • What do you see as your role in this change?


  2. Create a shared vision, clarity and alignment. Consensus is critical, and leadership must articulate what the change means for the organization as well as how it lines up with goals and objectives. Often, this will entail breaking down silos and promoting cross-functional cooperation. Clarity and alignment mean looking at the change regarding strategy, not just new technologies and processes. “When leaders fall into this trap, they are being irresponsible and their credibility suffers, their intentions come into question, and doubt begins to loom about their capabilities and know-how,” writes innovation consultant Glenn Llopis.
  3. Manage change at all leadership levels. No single leader can be an effective champion for change. Successful change management requires a consistent message and action from leadership at all levels of the organization, from junior managers to the C-suite. A recent Stanford Business case study discovered that significant performance results at a health care system were only realized when leadership at different levels were involved.
  4. Tie change to specific goals. Students learn in business school about SMART goals — goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. Writer Jean Scheid says that successful change management starts with SMART goals. Be specific about the change and articulate why it’s necessary, and make sure progress can be monitored and measured. Let all people involved know that the change management won’t be achievable without their help. Set realistic expectations, and set achievable timelines for all change-related initiatives.

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