Practical and Pragmatic Change Leadership

Share Button

In the previous two blogs of this series Showing up as a Change Leader and Preparing Yourself as a Change Leader, we explored the ways to prepare ourselves, as well as the things we can do, to make a difference when leading our teams and organisations through change. In the final blog of the series I’m going to reflect on the practical and pragmatic things you can do which build sustainable change leadership.

If I could travel back in time to visit myself 10 years ago when I was first embarking on my journey as a business change professional, these are the pieces of advice I’d share with my rookie change-leader self.

Be brave in the face of resistance

First of all, expect and prepare for resistance – it will happen no matter the size or scale of the change so you’d be foolish to keep your fingers crossed and hope it doesn’t. And, when you do experience it, it’s not something which can be ignored nor should it be seen as a negative. We say, at Afiniti, that real change happens when you connect with and involve people – people are at the heart of your organisation. If you want process/behaviour change to be adopted and embedded it can be constructive to experience resistance as it means that people are trying to understand and work things out.

Some folk think that people are naturally resistant to all change. Taking a step back, it is perhaps unfair to say that resistance to change is ‘human nature’, people don’t automatically resist ALL change. Rather it’s more a case that people naturally resist change which they perceive as being detrimental to their lives in some way, or because they do not see any reason to change – ‘our process/organisation already works, so why change?’

As we mentioned in a previous blog, making sure you’re visible and openly communicating with people means you’ll pick up on resistance much quicker and your proactivity will help people feel informed and listened to.  You’ll also then be able to understand the drivers behind the resistance; often we find that it stems from a lack of understanding around the business vision, poor communication or change fatigue, or a combination of these factors.

“people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”

So, what do you do when you’ve made sure you’re visible and proactively communicating and you encounter pocket/s of resistance? In this scenario you will be surprised how far open listening and authentic reiteration of the vision can go to bring people back on board.  Don’t jump to defending/justifying the change, take a coaching approach and helping people to think things through and come to terms with the change for themselves.  Another tactic, which I’ve found to be very beneficial, is to extend the conversation with people. Speak honestly with them, discuss the proposed changes, give them options or listen if they have alternative ideas – they may just come up with something that you hadn’t thought of which turns out to be a brilliant solution, and compromise, and which lets them feel like they are part of the change and have a stake in it. Sometimes it’s about control – people need to feel like they have control over their working lives – or as Peter Senge put it ‘people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.’

Hold strong to the vision

As a leader, one of your many roles will be to inspire and unite your team/s. This is never more important than when leading change. For the most part, change is a lengthy journey that continues long after the operating system has been delivered, or the new ERP implemented – remember what they said when you passed your driving test – ‘now you really learn how to drive!’

There will be times of great activity and excitement and there will also be times where it all seems futile and you feel you’re not making enough progress. Change is hard, especially when you’re trying to lead other people through it.

“You will need to remind yourself and your team/s about the vision more than once!”

The one thing that I have found to keep things on track when it all seems a little crazy and you’re trying to keep control, or equally when you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall because things are not moving quickly enough, is to revisit the vision. Reiterating to yourself and your team regularly why you are doing this can be incredibly grounding. It can help to inject a little ‘more speed but less haste’ into proceedings and it’s also worth remembering that it may have been easier in some ways to carry on doing things the way you used to, but in the long run, that’s no longer an option.

You will need to remind yourself and your team/s about the vision more than once! We all have extremely busy lives with multiple priorities and points of stress both at home and work.  You may have delivered an extremely well received Town Hall, informing people of your transformation – the vision and the story etc. and the positive impacts of this will probably hold for a number of weeks, but you can’t afford to take your foot off the gas, if that’s followed up by radio silence people will forget and get twitchy, and then you could have new pockets of resistance forming.

Some great advice I was given (which also made me laugh) was to remember that leading change is like being in an 80’s band, you have to keep performing the same songs over and over again, even if you’ve released lots of new albums as people just want to keep hearing the same old hits!

The carrot and stick

So you’ve done everything by the book: communicated, spent time with people, followed the plan (remembering that the plan isn’t covered in aspic, it needs to be revisited regularly to be fit for purpose), been transparent etc but there are still pockets of resistance or some teams are still refusing to collaborate and it’s starting to hold up the programme. You feel like you’re all out of carrots and are seriously considering getting the stick out.

You’ve probably already set targets and KPIs to support adoption or behaviour change and at this point it is very tempting to start assigning consequences to individuals or teams who fail to meet them. It is true that this will illicit a reaction from people, but whether it’s the long-term, positive reaction you are looking for is questionable!

So, before you reach for your stick I’d urge you to think about a few other positive tactics to try first:

  • Revisit your original plan and check to see whether your expectations of your people were realistic in the first place. Are you giving people enough: time, technical and developmental support, resource, encouragement to achieve what you expected of them? Or do you need to revise your expectations?
  • Revisit my first two points above. Be honest with yourself – have you communicated enough with key people – have you shown them the What’s In It For Me? Have you listened and taken onboard, as much as possible, the feedback and insight you’ve garnered – or at the very least acknowledged people’s ideas and feelings? Have you held true to the vision and modelled desired behaviours and ways of working, being a positive role model for your team/s? If you’ve answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, then you know what to do.
  • Try some positive reinforcement. At Afiniti, to help our clients reinforce positive behaviour change and adoption, and to help motivate areas of the business who are yet to come on board, we often help our clients build showcases of teams or individuals who are really making a difference and demonstrating the new desired behaviours. These case studies can be extremely powerful when communicated in the appropriate way (video is a great medium for this).
  • Set performance goals for individuals which are related to the change outcomes to encourage personal motivation to find a way through the change.
  • Also, make sure you celebrate the milestones along the journey. Don’t wait for everything to be achieved before you celebrate or acknowledge the good work that’s already been done – remember this could be a long journey. Taking a break to mark success and re-energise your team/s will pay dividends.

Unfortunately, there are times when a change is just so unacceptable to an individual that they choose to leave an organisation, or worse, decide to stay and undermine the change.  In the case of very difficult change then it is important to factor turnover and managing severe resistance into your plan .  Anticipating a period of demotivation and reduced productivity is important but there may come a time when not changing ultimately leads to under performance.

You then you need to carefully plan, manage and execute in order not to damage morale amongst people who are on side; remember my earlier tips around staying brave and most definitely keep communicating the vision whilst actively listening and engaging.


We frequently post our thoughts, ideas and tips on: change leadership, change management, learning and communications, PPM, employee engagement and culture.

Subscribe here to start receiving a monthly roundup email from our Insights blog.