Building Effective Change Leadership

by Brandee Abel, Managing Director and Strategy Activator
at TiER1 Performance Solutions

No matter the initiative, every proposed change is only as valuable as the activation behind it – how work gets done, how employees own it, and how your customers experience it. Effective change leadership is critical in order to realize that activation. Internal change is not as simple as raising awareness, creating understanding, getting buy-in, and making a commitment. Instead, organizations need to activate change by creating new experiences for their employees.

Change experiences are holistic, role-based, and business-driven practices that encourage employees to carry change forward as individuals. Consistent change experiences foster new mindsets and behaviors in employees over time, making it more likely the change will be fully adopted long-term and produce noticeable differences in results.

Even with this strategy in mind, organizational change can feel daunting. The journey of change is bumpy and risky — many who undertake it never see their projects succeed. The graphic below depicts the common dips in performance many employees experience during the change journey:

The impact of change on organizational performance.

Change experiences only work in combatting the natural fears of employees when they’re led by an effective change leader. Change leaders guide people through the bumpy journey of change and mitigate the real and perceived barriers to adoption, by focusing on the larger structural and organizational processes at play.

Why Change Can Be Challenging for Employees

Change in the workplace can sometimes be experienced as a threat (whether that’s to the performer’s sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relationships, fairness, or more). The human brain has a deeply established response to perceived threats: fight or flight. This survival response can lead to defensive or argumentative behaviors as people shut down, disengage, and avoid further conflict.

Performers can also perceive change as being wrong. When change is perceived as wrong, the brain is triggered into reacting with judgments and critical thoughts. Disagreement can persist on substantive grounds, or it can devolve into nitpicking.

Most often, change isn’t quickly adopted because new ways of working simply take more time than habits formed in the past. People need space and extra time to practice working in new ways, to form new connections in their brain and to repeat new behaviors as they establish new habits and patterns.

Most often, change isn’t quickly adopted because new ways of working simply take more time than habits formed in the past.

That’s where effective change leadership comes in. Change leaders can lead a dialogue around the justifications behind the change, as well as the reasons it’s not being adopted. Often, employees do want to adopt the change and achieve high performance – if they’re not adopting the new behavior, there’s likely a good reason for it. A clear barrier might be standing in their way (for example, an employee might hear that her manager wants her to cross-sell other products, but her compensation is based on selling a core set of products – thus, she’s unlikely to quickly start to cross-sell other products).

Leading change effectively is crucial, but not easy. Consider the following qualities of effective change leadership. Where are you strong as a change leader? Where could you use more practice?

Six Ways to Build Strong Change Leadership

Drive leadership alignment through clear decisions.

  • Dedicate focused effort to the change – how else will you corral everyone’s big ideas and concerns?
  • Build credibility with individual leaders. Authentic relationships go a long way toward solving problems and
    overcoming challenges.
  • Share information in a way that enables senior leaders to make clear decisions and understand the expected
    outcomes of those decisions.
  • Help leaders see when they are prioritizing too many expected outcomes.

Authentically lead the change.

  • Find your own “why” for yourself and for the organization. Reflect on your answers and be really clear when
    communicating them to others.
  • Let colleagues know specifically what you expect of them and how they can drive change – and then hold
    yourself and others accountable.
  • Own your power. Everything you do and every word you say either drives the change or undermines it!
  • Keep the change top of mind for yourself and others by bringing people together to facilitate idea-sharing and

Be open to feedback (aka – listen).

  • Be attentive by using responsive body language.
  • Dig deeper than initial reactions to understand what’s driving the person’s feedback or concerns.
  • Use questions as a guide for what to communicate in the future and an opportunity to explain how decisions
    were made.
  • Avoid defensiveness and, instead, take time to process what the person giving feedback is saying. This means
    taking time to reflect on the feedback and how you’d like to address it.

Drive progress.

  • Build rapport with people to enable everyone to contribute with ease.
  • Ask questions to help people think differently, such as: Why do you think that might be? What else might
    explain that? How might we do things differently? How does that make you feel?
  • Identify, document, and tackle barriers – be vocal with people about what’s getting in the way of change.
  • As change occurs, let others own as much of the process as possible.
  • Be comfortable with ambiguity but drive tirelessly for clarity.

Create experiences.

  • If you want to change how your employees think about a concept, start by changing their experience with the
  • Use storytelling, visuals, and immersive opportunities to let people touch and feel change, and experience
    what it might mean for them.
  • Recognize and reward people when they think about something differently or use a new method to make a
  • Model the behaviors and mindsets you want others to adopt.
  • Be comfortable with ambiguity but drive tirelessly for clarity.

Be resilient.

  • Take time to reflect and renew your energy (sometimes you have to step away to be able to lean in later).
  • Build and rely on your network of supporters (change advocates and personal mentors).
  • Embrace a growth mindset – an attitude of positivity and openness to change – for challenges so you can
    persist despite setbacks.
  • Learn from criticism and share what you’ve learned to inspire others and find inspiration for yourself.
  • Let go of what you can’t control or influence.

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, change leadership is a critical competency for individual leaders and for organizations. The ability to not only quickly adopt change, but to be a driving force that helps others do the same is a leadership differentiator. Companies that have strong change leadership, not just change management, are outpacing those that do not because they are able to drive more change at a faster pace.

This was directly applicable to an initiative we’ve started. I can see clearly where the PMO can support the initiative to give it more structure/measurement/time-line etc. Thank you!”

“Thank you for all the effort and keeping us engaged! It was really interesting and informative. Enjoy all that maple syrup!”

“Great tie in to Agile, Hybrid, Waterfall, etc. methods to get projects/ work done”

“Matt – Excellent material and presentation.  Thank you very much!”

“Great Presentation!”

“Excellent topic”

“Thank you!”

Agents and supports for positive change within our organizations, our communities, and the world.

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