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What Leaders Cannot Fail to Do When Leading Change

By default, people see change as a threat, and this makes it challenging to implement change successfully. How can leaders overcome this barrier and turn change from threat to opportunity?


In a Nutshell

  • Navigating the people aspects of change plays a decisive role in every organisational change journey

  • Change initiatives require more than just efficient communication, buy-in, and decisive leadership

  • Leaders need to listen from the start and create a safe environment for their staff to speak up and share their perspectives and realities


Change initiatives fail because people have difficulty with change

People make or break change initiatives. Navigating the people aspects of change plays a decisive role in every organisational change journey.

Bain reports that only 12% of companies reach their transformation targets. “Among many potential explanations, one that gets very little attention may be the most fundamental: the invisible fears and insecurities that keep us locked into behaviors even when we know rationally that they don’t serve us well,” Harvard Business Review says in Leaders Focus Too Much On Changing Policies and Not Enough On Changing Minds. “Add to that the anxiety that nearly all human beings experience in the face of change.”

The reality is no matter how well-planned the change is, most initiatives do not meet their goals.

Bain says that it is the “inner game” that determines the success of a transformation.

The inner game determines whether a transformation will succeed - BAIN

Change initiatives require more than just efficient communication, buy-in, and decisive leadership

Leaders need to go beyond communicating well

When people understand the why of the change initiative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they buy into it.

“Communication alone does not create engagement. In our experience, many leadership teams are disconnected from their own people's thinking. They assume that explaining the rationale for a business transformation will convince people it's needed.” Bain says in Soul Searching: True Transformations Start Within.

Getting buy-in is not enough

Staff are most likely to say yes to their bosses and most will readily agree to their recommendations.

Buy-in has an expiry date. Bain notes that “People who were excited about making the transformation happen grow tired of the extra work and impatient with the lack of visible results.”

When the challenges begin, people’s level of commitment gets tested. Leaders need to engage with staff concerning the change throughout the ups and downs of the journey—from start to finish.

Command-and-control leadership is not as effective as it used to be

Forceful leadership is not enough. The command-and-control leadership style of the past belongs in the past. It has been seen to be less and less effective in implementing change.

“In times of disruption, management styles that leaders have developed over the years often need to be adjusted. This is hard and can feel counter-intuitive.” Forbes says in Change is Painful, and That’s OK.

“It’s a pervasive belief that strong leadership and solid day-to-day management are all that’s needed when times get tough. Leadership and management do matter a great deal of course. It’s how we lead and manage that changes.”

The key is to listen—from the start Listening first invites people into the process

When change is imposed, people can’t be expected to respond with open arms and a sense of ownership. Imposed change is, by default, a burden on them.

What leaders first need to do is to acknowledge that and seek to understand their reality.

By first listening and asking the right questions, you immediately invite them into the journey. Being part of the change from the start, your people will be part of the transformation, and they will sense it. Excluding them will, on the other hand, make them feel like a victim of change.

“By asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers, leaders can gain necessary insights that lead them to the root causes of why people resist such as fear of being replaced,” McKinsey says.

“These insights also allow leaders to set the tone for the transformation and challenge their teams to think about how the change could take shape. Therefore employees will feel they are a part of the transformation rather than having change foisted on them.

Behavioral science suggests this shift in perspective can encourage employees to commit to change.”

Allow people to co-create vs getting buy-in for a finished plan

“Winning the inner game starts with making sure people participate in the change and provide regular input, so it's not done to them, but with them,” Bain says. “Co-involvement in the transformation process infuses managers and the front line with energy to implement change and sustain it. Leaders say that approach doubles their chances of success.”

This means pushing the starting line of change earlier. Obtaining input on the plan by those affected by the change is proving to be more effective.

“Digital transformation worked for these organizations because their leaders went back to the fundamentals: they focused on changing the mindset of its members as well as the organizational culture and processes before they decide what digital tools to use and how to use them,” Harvard Business Review says in Digital Transformation is Not About Technology.

Listening first stops the root causes of change failure in their tracks

This means having some tough but necessary conversations. Leadership will have to be willing to hear hard truths and face realities on the ground.

Listening gives you access to what you really need to know. Sometimes the most valuable perspective is that of your staff.

Often new technologies can fail to improve organizational productivity not because of fundamental flaws in the technology but because intimate insider knowledge has been overlooked - HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW

By obtaining this vital inside information, leaders can determine the right plan and timing for the transformation.

Listening first requires leaders who can create a psychologically safe environment

The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask. - PETER DRUCKER

Listening can only be effective when staff feel safe to speak, in the first place. Leaders need to create an environment of safety, allowing people to share their honest realities.

A successful change process needs coach-like leaders. A coach is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t tell the player what to do, but focuses on helping them get better at what they are doing. And this is one of the key qualities of a successful change lead, and a leader of the future.

Read more about leaders of the future in The Kind of Leaders You Need to Face Disruption

Listening first turns threats into opportunities

“Disruption may be causing workers to fret about their jobs, but it can also be an avenue for bosses to better engage staff,” experts said at a recent forum on employee engagement, as reported by the Straits Times.

Transformation journeys are dreaded by staff, and are often regarded as a threat to their jobs, welfare, and happiness.

But when leaders are able to listen and address these concerns, they are able to get to the root and address misconceptions, and even correct mistakes in the planning process.

By listening, leaders turn resistance into solutions, fear into optimism, and threat into opportunity.

Learn more about overcoming digital adoption challenges in the Building Digital Confidence E-book.

Change is an opportunity to strengthen organisational teams

Change is constant, and leaders can choose how to respond to change, and how to make the most of it.

By engaging their people in the conversations about change, leaders also build trust and strengthen relationships.

Whether people make or break change hinges on a leader’s ability to create a safe environment and listen.

People do not have to be a hindrance to change and innovation. With leaders who build trust, people can be the very drivers who take the organisation to the next level.

Leaders who achieved or exceeded their transformation targets said inner-game factors made up 80% of the reasons for their success. BAIN


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