Essential Attributes and Behaviours of a Change Leader

This literature review examines the topics of change management and leadership by exploring how leadership attributes contribute to and/or hinder the successfulness of a change initiative. The main question undergirding this report is: What are some of the essential attributes and behaviours of an effective change leader?

Three broad themes are included in this report: communication, adaptability, and ownership. These themes were delineated from my reading of the literature authored by management experts (e.g., Fielder, 1967; Higgs & Rowland, 2005, Miller, 2010; Pascale, Millemann, & Gioga, 1997; Pettigrew, 1987; Zeffane, 1996). Although the literature I reviewed discusses these themes in a variety of change-specific contexts, my article focuses primarily on their implications for organizational change, and provides advice on the forms of leadership that are instrumental for the successfulness of large-scale change initiatives. More specifically, I explore communication styles that work to influence employees’ commitment to change, the adaptability of a change leader, and the degree of ownership over the change initiative the leader assumes. I complement these topics with a discussion on the impact that certain leadership styles have on promoting and/or hindering change.

Through conducting such literature reviews, it is hoped that practitioners will gain an improved understanding of the impact of leadership tactics that work to promote or hinder change and the known factors that contribute to strong leadership.


A successful leader of change must possess a variety of communicative skills. According to Miller (2010) a leader’s ability to establish a common understanding about the purpose of a change, and its impact, is a critical component of the leader’s success. This finding emerged from Miller’s evaluation of qualitative data collected over years of working alongside leaders in organizations undergoing major change. Thus, a key component to effective change leadership is the ability of the leader to articulate a clear vision.

Earlier research by Pascale, Millemann, and Gioga (1997) had emphasized the importance of conveying the big picture and providing a detailed road map for the change journey. However, since it is not possible to predict the precise impact or trajectory the change will follow, others (e.g., Pettigrew, 1987) have advised that an effective change leader is someone who is comfortable admitting they do not know the answer. Accordingly, such a person can and must often mobilize imprecise and inarticulate visions. Boselie and Koene (2010) suggest that by distinguishing concrete, short-term objectives from more nebulous, long-term goals, leaders mitigate the problem of ambiguity inherent to spearheading a change initiative. This would be particularly true for a novel change initiative.

Given the fact that each change context involves a unique combination of participants and conditions, it is critical that the change leader is someone who explicitly recognizes and can admit to the uncertainty they face during the change process (Boselie & Koene, 2010). It follows, then, that the key ingredients to the formation of a vision that offers meaningful direction are persistence, patience, and deliberated planning (Zeffane, 1996).

The language employed by the leader throughout an organizational change should relay a forward-thinking mindset by focusing on the process of becoming, rather than being (Pettigrew, 1987). Focusing on the message of what the organization can be is necessary for overcoming resistance to change. In order to support this mentality, the leadership must communicate clearly to the employees that, given its wealth of human resources, the organization has the potential to become more effective, a better employer, and that the cooperation of all employees is necessary for meeting this objective.

In a similar vein, appreciative inquiry refers to a framework that focuses on seeking the best in an organization or its people (Karakas, 2009). This practice is thought to create long-term transformational change by shifting communication from factual, causal, social accounts to more self-referential, ideological, social accounts. It inspires the actualization of positive potential by drawing from past displays of peak performance and positive forward-looking statements (Karakas). A desirable by-product of using appreciative inquiry as a method of clarifying a change leader’s agenda, is that it may also serve as an impetus for strengthening institutional trust. This term refers to the level of confidence employees have in their organization (Boselie & Koene, 2010).

According to Shaw (1994), it is the change in the nature of conversations between organizational members that leads to the emergence of new behaviours (as cited in Higgs & Rowland, 2005). Shielding change from employees by concealing information increases perceived uncertainty, as well as stress about the consequences of the pending change. In a recent study by Boselie and Koene (2010), where top management shifted their communication style from one of concealment to one that involved a more detailed account of the evolving situation, there was a transformation in the company as a whole. This shift in communication helped to reduce high levels of internal uncertainty among the human resources managers, which allowed organizational identity to grow stronger (Boselie & Koene).

Likewise, according to Lewis, Romanaggi, and Chapple, (2010) good communication is key to overcoming natural resistance to change. One important way of ensuring effective communication is by using workshops and focus groups (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioga, 1997). These sessions are useful in two ways. First, they allow leadership to communicate to members the nature and process of change undertaken, and in particular, the values and objectives that the management is pursuing. Second, these sessions ensure that adequate opportunities exist for employees to provide input into the direction of the organization. These sessions can serve as informal brainstorming opportunities, wherein employees have the opportunity to develop ideas, and share them with the leadership (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioga, 1997).

During organizational change, leaders employ “influence tactics” (Furst & Cable, 2008) to communicate and manage the change. An influence tactic is defined as a behaviour that a leader may use to reduce employee resistance to change. To illustrate this concept, consider the example of an inspirational appeal. This type of request is characterized as the ability to communicate a compelling vision. Another influence tactic is called consultation. This is the kind of request a leader may employ at a stage of change that calls for participant-oriented execution. It is not uncommon for a change leader to use varying requests at different stages of a given change. Research (e.g. Fable & Yukl, 1992) has found that, used independently, both inspirational and consultative request tactics have been highly effective to convince employees of the benefits associated with the leaders agenda.

A study by Fable and Yukl (1992) found support for the idea that the type of influence tactic a leader uses, may be related to their leadership style. For example, directive leaders are more likely to use rational persuasion (provide a logical explanation for why a given change is being made), a tactic that has been found to give rise to a mixture of responses ranging from committed compliance to resistance. Conversely, supportive leaders are more likely to use inspirational appeals in order to influence the values and ideals of employees and elicit their buy-in. Research (e.g., Fable & Yukl) suggests that the key to gaining commitment to change lies in using rational persuasion as a follow-up to change initiatives, as opposed to a initial measure

The relative success of a leader’s choice to use an influence tactic also depends on the intrinsic properties of a given tactic. For example, soft tactics, such as ingratiation and consultation, are found to be extremely effective (De Dreu, Wiengart, & Kwon, 2000). In contrast, tactics characterized as hard, such as legitimization, seldom lead to commitment. However, the use of rational persuasion in tandem with a hard tactic is more successful than the use of either tactic in isolation (Fable & Yukl, 1992).

According to the research of Daly and Greyer (1994), employees expect, as a matter of right, to be consulted and informed during an organizational transition. Therefore, using rational justification for the change is a necessary ingredient to increase perceptions of fairness among employees (as cited in Botheridge, 2003).

Another way that influence tactics can cultivate a more inviting climate for change or the resistance thereof relates to attribution theory. Recognizing that the type of relationship leaders have with their employees shapes how their actions will be interpreted. For example, Furst and Cable (2008) established that the way a leader’s intentions are ascribed by their employees largely depends on the quality of relationship existing between the two parties. According to attribution theory, which was originally proposed by Heider (1958), this would mean that when a leader’s actions are seen as inconsistent with their past actions, employees will arrive at the conclusion that the leader is motivated by situational factors. To illustrate this theory, consider the following example: an employee that has a negative relationship with their leader and is the subject of ingratiation will assume the leader’s compliments are insincere and motivated by the situation. This assumption is due to an inconsistency between the antagonistic tone their relationship has taken. Conversely, an employee with a positive working relationship with his or her manager will perceive the use of a hard influence tactic, such as legitimization, as an attempt to reduce uncertainty. The explanation for this is that when the employee is accustomed to seeing the leader in a positive light they interpret demonstrations of power and authority by assuming that such behaviours stem from the leader’s disposition.

Based on the psychological phenomena and studies reviewed above, it follows that an effective change leader must establish open communication with all concerned employees and conduct himself or herself with consistency so that actions align with words and their intentions are perceived as sincere. Thus, it is important for the change leader to create dialogue and use intellectual combat to foster clarity and justify ‘buy-in.’ Not only will this two-way communication be critical to the persuasive power of their vision (Kramer, 2006) but it will also increase authenticity by encouraging employees to refrain from holding back information that they fear will evoke retaliation.

In conclusion, a critical component of a change leader’s success is their ability to establish a common understanding of the purpose and impact of the change. When the change they aim to execute is far from being clear cut, they must be comfortable admitting their own uncertainty, focus on the completion of concrete, short-term objectives, by seeking the best qualities of their employees and drawing from past displays of positive performance. Such efforts will change the language describing the change and lead to the emergence of behaviours in its support.

During organizational change, leaders may engage in a variety of practices to accomplish these directives for success. However, some are more effective than others and although a leader’s choice of which influence tactics they choose may be related to their leadership style, rational persuasion appears to be a key driver of the leaders ability to gain employee commitment. Because the type of relationship leaders have with their employees shapes how their actions will be interpreted, they must remain aware that their employees may fall prey to attribution error and ascribe negative dispositional causes (e.g. the leader wants more control) while disregarding valid situational factors (e.g. the change is actually of benefit to the organization). It follows from this research that when it comes to a leaders ability to diminish employee resistance to change, the best influence tactic a leader can practice, is ensuring that their words are aligned with their actions. Of further importance is their ability to foster high quality relationships with each employee.


Most simply stated, an effective change leader is someone who demonstrates adaptability. According to Fielder’s (1967) contingency theory of leadership, the effectiveness of a leader depends on the existing match between situational characteristics and whether the leader is task- or relations-oriented (Fielder). Task-oriented leaders typically possess a directive style of leadership. This orientation makes them effective at clarifying responsibilities and ensuring that their employees understand their duties. In contrast, a relations-oriented leader has a supportive style of leadership. As such, their behaviour aims at showing care and concern for employees.

However, Miller’s (2002) work suggests that a successful change leader is someone who is able to deviate from their natural orientation and adopt the style of leadership that is best-suited to the situational characteristics with which they are faced. Similarly, research by Higgs and Rowland (2005) has emphasized the importance of flexibility. Their paper explains that the relationship between a leader’s approach to change (e.g. orientation) and their leadership behaviours (e.g. deployment of influence tactics) is “one of differing balances, rather than prescriptive absolutes” (p. 144).

The trait of adaptability is effectively demonstrated by the principles underlying leader-member exchange theory (LMX). LMX is distinguishable from other theories of leadership because it examines the dyadic relationship a leader develops with each follower as unique (Ilies, Nahrgang, & Morgeson, 2007). By demonstrating that the quality of a relationship has an important effect on the parties, and particularly the followers’ attitudes and behaviours, LMX provides insight on what makes some leaders more effective than others. For example, leaders engaging in high quality LMXs are more likely to elicit organizational citizenship behaviour (OCB) from their employees (Ilies, Nahrgang, & Morgeson). This term refers to any discretionary behaviour that an employee performs out of positive sentiment that goes above and beyond their job duties .An organizational citizenship behaviour is not typically encouraged through any formal reward systems and these acts mainly come in two forms: individual- and organizational-targeted behaviours. The former refers to a behaviour that has immediate benefits specific to certain individuals, which indirectly benefits the organization, while the latter is the direct opposite (Ilies, Nahrgang, & Morgeson).

Research (Ilies, Nahrang, & Morgeson) investigating the strength of LMX theory has shown that LMX leaders are more likely to promote behaviours that are targeted to benefit an organizations individual’s. By indicating that employees are more likely to respond through acts of an interpersonal as opposed to an organizational nature, such evidence supports the relational value LMX yields. Of equal importance, are the previously discussed findings, which suggest that employees interpret the motivation backing a leader’s deployment of certain influence tactics in a way that reinforces their existing perceptions of the leader (Furst & Cable, 2008).

Nonetheless, it has been shown (Ilies, Nahrang, & Morgeson, 2007) that an employee with an agreeable disposition who is satisfied with co-workers, is more likely to engage in prosocially directed behaviours, whereas an employee with a less interpersonally inclined personality, highly motivated by formalized reward systems, such as a salary increase, is more likely to engage in behaviours that are targeted to benefit the organization. LMX outcomes are complex because they depend on situational and contextual variables, such as a follower’s personality profile. However, despite these nuances, more often than not an LMX approach to leadership is likely to be a useful style to elicit acceptance of and cooperation for change (Ilies, Nahrang, & Morgeson).

Strong indicators of adaptability include optimism, collaboration, purposefulness, and pro-activity (Miller, 2010). These traits capture Pascale, Millemann, and Gioga’s (1997) description of a strong change leader as someone who eagerly arises to face a challenge, accepts ambiguity and adversity as part of the design, stays on-course by harnessing setbacks, and accepts learning as a form of inquiry in actions. By its very nature, the implementation of large-scale change requires willingness on the part of the leader to undergo personal change (Miller, 2002). However, this willingness extends to the employees as well, which is why Miller (2010) asserts that the distinguishing feature separating successful from unsuccessful change leaders is an acknowledgment that people must consciously adapt to changes that unfold in their work environment.

Fundamentally, adaptability requires the ability to anticipate and cope with the unexpected. Kramer (2006) contends that a contributing factor to the success of leaders guided by a tough-minded approach is the ability to teach employees to expect the unexpected through the deployment of intimidating and high-pressure tactics. Appropriately, these leaders are referred to as the “great intimidators.” Notorious for their high levels of political intelligence, such leaders possess keen and discriminating eyes, which allow them to evaluate employees by detecting their areas of weakness and insecurity. Although this type of leadership is in opposition to charismatic leadership, the tough-minded leadership style does, nonetheless, have its advantages. For example, consider the utility in a scenario wherein a key player in the change initiative shows resistance to the adoption of new values. In such cases, detecting and publicly terminating the adversary can be an opportunity for the leader to display their personal commitment to the organization’s change agenda (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioga, 1997).

Another key skill of a change leader is the ability to identify strengths and nurture the creative talents and abilities of people forming the change team (Karakas, 2009). This aptitude is an aspect of social intelligence that is grounded in the core competencies of any great leader, such as interpersonal skills, and empathy (Kramer, 2006). According to Kovoor-Misra (2009), the response of the employees in an organization depends on whether the change is perceived as a threat or an opportunity. Whereby, in threat situations, individuals will focus on perceptions of “who we are,” which can manifest as a barrier to change. In opportunity situations, by contrast, individuals will also focus on “who we could be.”

Another aspect of adaptability is the ability to vary behavioural patterns, in both amount and intensity. A highly powerful component of strong leadership, behavioural control, is integral to a change leader’s ability to alter the structural context in which the change is incorporated. Adaptation has also been linked to maintaining organization-wide commitment to innovation, by allowing people to embrace the experimental nature of change without feeling threatened by the possibility of failure (Zeffane, 1996).

Almost precluding a fear of failure, the trait of openness to change has been studied by researchers such as Wanberg and Banas (2000). This construct involves two components: a willingness to support the change, and maintaining a positive affect about the outcomes (Wanberg & Banas, 2000). The level of openness to change present during a change initiative is key because it reveals the relative likelihood that a planned change will be successful. Cognitive adaptation theory, posits that in high stress contexts such as change, individuals accustomed to experiencing mental stability and well-being are one in the same as those who have high self-esteem, optimism, and perceived feelings of self-control (Weick and Quinn, 1999). These traits also define resilience; a personality construct that is associated with authentic leadership, meaningfulness, and empowerment (Karakas, 2009). Accordingly, research has shown that resilient personalities show higher levels of acceptance and are more accommodating of changes in their work environment (Wanberg & Bana, 2000).

Leadership qualities such as flexibility, acceptance of, and comfort with, ambiguity, turning adversity into opportunity, and openness, contribute to successful implementations of change. Furthermore, they demonstrate the extent to which a leader’s ability to detect and manage obstacles that arise throughout the change process is related to their adaptability. Zeffane (1996) emphasizes the importance of adaptability by stating that leaders that possess this trait gain a better understanding of how their organization can cope with change more productively. He explains that this is because when it becomes necessary, these leaders are open to adjusting their approach and making corrections (Zeffane, 1996).

Karakas (2009) contends that successful change leaders possess the right mindset referring to their ability to engage in perspective taking, continuous learning and the ability to engage in strategic and integrative thinking. An influential explanation for the resistance to change conceptualizes it as an individual’s shield of protection from either the real or imagined effects of the proposed change (as cited in Dent & Goldberg, 1999). It follows from this finding that leaders who conceive of the change through the perspective of the employee are likely to be more effective at persuading the recalcitrant. This is because they have a better understanding of what is underlying employee resistance (Dent & Goldberg, 1999). More importantly, however, such leaders are able to admit the shortcomings that may exist and accept recommendations for improvement from their employees (Dent & Goldberg, 1999).

Successful leaders during organizational change must possess a variety of skills in order to execute a smooth transition for their employees. In most cases the relative success of these skills depends on a variety of factors such as the match between the situational characteristics of the change and the orientation of the leader. However, a critical component of a change leader’s success is their ability to deviate from their natural orientation and adopt the style of leadership that is best-suited to the situation with which they are faced. This characterization of an effective change leader captures the respective importance that flexibility plays in a leaders’ adaptability.

Specific styles of leadership such as LMX are illustrative of adaptability in action and the benefits that arise there from (increased incidence of discretionary employee behaviours performed out of positive sentiment). Empirically, leaders who adapt their approach to suit the unique characteristics of their employees are more likely to promote behaviours that are targeted to benefit the individual’s and the organization as a whole. These benefits include cultivating a climate of acceptance of and cooperation for change.

At the core of adaptability lies the leader’s ability to serve as a shining example of the exact willingness to undergo personal change, which is demanded of the affected employees. Deciphering the weaknesses and insecurities of their employees is equally as important as the ability of the leader to identify their strengths. Developing a working knowledge of such details is conducive to the leaders ability to detect adversaries of the change that will impede progress and deal with them appropriately. Paying attention to the strengths and weaknesses of employees is integral to the leaders ability to alter the structural context in which the change is incorporated and choosing a leader that possesses an optimistic, collaborative, purposeful, mentally stable, confident, and resilient personality type will produce the success associated with an adaptable change leader.


Naturally, the responsibility a leader has over a change initiative imbues them with a sense of ownership over the process. In their efforts to communicate a positive forward thinking vision, and exemplify an optimistic and adaptive flexibility the leader is likely to focus on benefits-realization (Miller, 2010). According to Miller, such a narrow focus may cause the leader to neglect the risk of failure and its associated cost. This failure to consider the consequences of an unsuccessful change is problematic because it leaves the organization unprepared to deal with the problems and losses that may result. In effect this would result in disillusionment amongst employees concerning future initiatives. As such, ownership over the change can only be achieved through a leader who assumes accountability over the negative implications associated with the change as well as the positive.

Ownership is essential to the success of a change leader’s power to implement change and it is achieved by the leader’s ability to assess two equally important outcomes of the change they are leading, failure and success, in tandem. Comparing the potential probability of success and the cost of failure allows the change leader to be more proactive in their prioritization of the change phases as well as continual adjustments (Miller, 2010).

Another practice associated with ownership is accepting that there will be shortfalls along the way (Miller, 2010). Driving a leader’s ability to successfully execute change is their capacity to sustain the change long enough to realize a return on investment. Thus, it is critical for the leader to detect when they should abandon change efforts that incur a preponderance of costs, and a lack of foreseeable benefits (Miller, 2010). Maintaining ownership over the outcomes of the change, both desirable and undesirable, requires the leader to avoid becoming fixated on cost savings, and accepting what may be sunk costs. In such conditions, an accountable leader will let bygones be bygones and initiate an entirely new vision altogether (Zeffane, 1996).

Thus far, the definition of ownership presented describes an approach that assumes that the one leader must provide all leadership functions. However, there is an alternative that is fashioned when a designated leader engages in a dialogue that promotes a sense of proprietorship among employees. Developing a sense of stewardship among employees must become an important objective for leadership. One way this can be achieved is through incorporation. A case study of Royal Dutch Shell provides insight into how effective change leaders are focused on harnessing employee participation to overcome the challenges that face their organization (Pascale, Milleman, & Gioja, 2007). This objective is critical to the success of a transformational change. In effect it creates an environment of empowerment where leadership is imparted among the parties directly responsible for enacting the change. Pascale, Milleman, and Gioja suggest that the extent to which employees believe they can affect organizational performance is positively related to the likelihood that they will engage in OCB’s, which may place their organization in a league above their competitors.

Research by Boselie and Koene (2010) has also highlighted the importance of people management in times of radical change. During such changes, timing is of the essence and involvement from the human resources department at the early stage, regardless of how large, small, simple, or complicated the change may seem, is critical for developing commitment and promoting retention (Boselie & Koene, 2010). Ownership extends beyond the financial and procedural aspects of the change and requires a willingness on the leaders behalf to become informed about how the employees perceive the change. Therefore, in the preliminary stages that precede the implementation of the change strategy, leaders may benefit from conducting an assessment of employee attitudes and perceptions. Collecting such data can provide a useful guide to predict common outcomes, such as intentions to quit, stress, and absenteeism. In the long-term, a simple assessment may avert a potential payroll catastrophe and be the best tool for planning the corrective action necessary to improve on any problems that are encountered throughout the change (Schraeder, 2004).

When a leader assumes ownership and a sense of responsibility to govern the well-being of affected employees, the risk of losing valuable employees who might decide to exit the organization is mitigated. Attrition is more likely to occur concomitantly with change as feelings of uncertainty heighten and job security diminishes (Boselie & Koene, 2010). When such emotionally taxing conditions are combined with a lack of people management, there is likely to be a weakening of the relationship between the leader and their employees, which in turn is likely to minimize the probability that the change will attain success. Therefore, leaders of change should not let formal focuses (e.g., finances) eclipse the attention they allot to the informal aspects of the organization (e.g., people management). Maintaining a personal leadership approach that acknowledges the norms and values of the organization’s cultural identity is essential to strong ownership of a change initiative (Boselie & Koene, 2010).

In part, recognizing the potential weaknesses and shortcomings of a change initiative relies on the ability of a leader to engage in frank exchange. Presumably, this recognition proves to be a challenge in mature organizations with profound hierarchies because employees tend to avoid conflict for fear of blame, or having someone take their dissent personally. However, an effective change leader engages in truth telling, even if the truth is hard to face (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioga, 1997). As an innovator, a leader of change advocates as well as explores the ideas their employees propose (Karakas, 2009).

Zeffane (1996) proposes that when driven by a leader that has a career background their employees can relate to, the outcome of a change initiative will be more favourable. Pascale, Milleman, and Gioja highlight the importance of identity by examining the extent that individuals identify with their working teams. Further, it has been established that two of the most influential factors affecting the amount of confidence employees have in their leader during times of change, are identification and competence (Boselie & Koene, 2010). This finding seems intuitive because the more similarity there exists between the two parties, the more they are able to co-identify through shared experiences. This mutual understanding thus translates into a perception of competence that positively affects levels of confidence. As such, it can be inferred that when a change leader shares a career background that is similar to their employees, the leader is perceived as more trustworthy.

This increased trustworthiness is an important consideration for any leader driving organizational change because of the uncertain nature of change and the emergence of cynical attitudes that result. Cynicism toward change refers to an employee’s loss of confidence in a leaders ability to manage and implement change effectively and research has shown that leaders who are cynical about organizational change are weaker performers on the job and exhibit less organizational citizenship behaviours. Furthermore, cynicism among leaders has been associated with a negative impact on the performance of employees as well. Cynicism is an important attitude to understand because research has shown that individuals who exhibit high cynicism are less likely to commit to change and become progressively more resistant towards change efforts (Rubin, Dierdorff, Bommer, & Baldwin, 2009). In an attempt to assess employee perceptions and attitudes towards change, Shraeder (2004) conducted a model-based approach to change assessment, categorizing cynicism as an intervening variable. Based on his findings, Shraeder argues cynicism reflects the internal health of an organization (e.g. levels of job satisfaction) because of the impact it bears on outcomes of interest such as productivity.

Examining how certain leaders are able to bring about commitment to organizational change, Herold, Fedor, Liu, and Caldwell, (2008) demonstrated that levels of employee commitment are based on an interaction of two factors. Specifically, the impact the change will have on the employees’ job and the presence of transformational leadership. The interaction effect was particularly apparent during changes of a more personal nature. Addressing the same themes research by Huy (2002), found that the success of a change effort resulted from two leadership abilities, namely, the leader’s display of emotional commitment to the change and their attentiveness to the emotions of others throughout the process. By addressing the emotional reactions of others, a change leader ensures a positive and respectful work environment that will, in turn, diminish resistance to change.

Eliciting Employee Participation in Organizational Change

Allowing people to influence the form and direction that the change has to take through participant-oriented change is one way to overcome barriers to change, such as cynicism (Zeffane, 1996). Lines, Selart, Espedal, and Johansen (2005), have found substantial evidence supporting a positive relationship between how credibly employees perceive the decision-making abilities of management and their trust in management. Lines and colleagues (2005) emphasize that employee participation is especially conducive to a leaders trust-building capacity during change. The reverse of this notion is also true: trust is key to gaining genuine participation and research has shown that subsequent to a change (merger), institutional trust suffers. This is mainly attributed to a widespread sense of identity loss (Boselie & Koene, 2010). During change, even employees at the management level report that they feel a sense of insecurity, uncertainty, threat, and a loss of control. As such, an effective change leader is someone who assumes responsibility for establishing relationships of trust with employees at all levels of an organization.

By allowing people to have more input about the form and direction of the change and by helping them acquire and use informed opinions, a participant-oriented approach has proven to be a more effective approach compared to a leader-centric approach (Higgs, & Rowland, 2005). However, it is possible to create too much participation by offloading too much responsibility during the implementation phase (Miller, 2010). In striking the right balance, the effective change leader understands the difference between delegating tasks and abandoning too much ownership too soon. The latter always leads to failure because it distances the leader from the ability to monitor the progress. Such distance may convey the message of a lack of commitment and concern for the changes success to employees (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioga, 1997).

In order to identify how change leaders can minimize stress that accompanies change initiatives, Botheridge, (2003) examined how participation in organizational change initiatives works to provide employees with a voice. The underlying mechanism accounting for the ability of participation to mitigate change-induced stress was the perception of fairness. Because voicing one’s opinion is integral to feel ownership and influence over the change process, it is important to consider the detrimental consequence that will occur if people are showing deference to the change. For example, Wanberg and Banas (2000) found that the degree which resistors expressed openness to change and job satisfaction was largely based on how much they participated in the change process.

A critical component of a change leaders success is their exercise of ownership over the process, and accountability for the benefits as well as potential failures. The visionary perspective of the leader will not be confined by tunnel vision. Rather, the successful leader will relentlessly assess and closely monitor the two equally important outcomes of the change they are leading, failure and success, in tandem. This will give them the rationale to sustain the change long enough to realize a promising return on investment or instead accept what may be sunk costs, and make the necessary improvements to their change plan.

Appropriately vested owners of a change initiative assume responsibility for more than the bottom line. They also focus their attention to people management. In particular, research has shown that a leaders success is largely accounted for by their ability to pay attention to the emotions of others throughout the process. Developing a working knowledge of employee attitudes concerning the change is also critical for developing commitment to the change and promoting retention throughout the high stress conditions it presents. Such advantageous objectives are grounded in the leaders willingness to become informed by conducting an assessment of employee attitudes and perceptions.

Becoming aware of levels of employee cynicism will alert the leader to how confident employees are in their likely ability to manage and implement the change effectively. If cynicism is prevalent the leader will need to address it in order to overcome the negative impact it has on the performance of employees and their respective acceptance towards the change as a whole. With a better understanding of employee change-related attitudes the leader will be more effective at gaining employee commitment by depicting the impact of the change on the employees’ job in a positive light and adopting a more transformational style of leadership.

In the majority of cases, the outcome of a change initiative will be most favourable when led by someone who identifies strongly with employees. Selecting a leader that shares a career history of similarity to the affected employees is likely to mitigate the cynicism that hinders change efforts. Both identification and competence are strong determinants of the level of confidence employees have in a change leader.

Another finding that emphasizes the importance of competent ownership is the established connection between how credible the leaders decision-making abilities are regarded and the resultant trust drawn from employees. In addition to competence, a leaders trust-building capacity is enhanced through their ability to mobilize employee participation. Allowing people to influence the form and direction that the change has to take is achieved through a practice of participant-oriented change. Thus, a high performing change leader is one who adopts a participant-oriented rather than a leader-centric approach and evades the extreme of offloading too much responsibility and distancing him or herself too early in the process.

Effective ownership is reined by the understanding of a leader that participation works to provide employees with a voice which in turn boosts their perceptions of fairness. A leader that prioritizes this goal imparts their leadership onto others by engaging in a dialogue that promotes a sense of stewardship among the parties directly responsible for enacting the desired change. Eliciting employee participation in organizational change gives employees a feeling of ownership and influence over the change process. These feelings work to create a stronger sense of job satisfaction, openness to change, and empowerment among employees.


My review of the literature has examined some of the essential attributes and behaviours of an effective leader in the changing workplace. I explored three broad and related topics, including communication styles that work to influence employees’ commitment to change; the adaptability of a change leader; and the degree of ownership over the change initiative the leader assumes.

First, I discussed communication during a change initiative. I noted that concealing information during organizational change increases perceived uncertainty, as well as employee’s feelings of stress regarding the consequences of change. Thus, it is recommended that open and regular communication be established between leaders and their employees to establish trust and a sense of organizational identity among employees. I also discussed the impact that influence tactics such as, legitimization and rational persuasion have on a leader’s ability to persuade employees of the merits of a change initiative. Research in this area suggests that the influential power of a persuasion tactic strongly depends on the quality of a leader’s relationship with each employee. That is, the better the nature of relationship shared between the two parties, the more likely the employee is to perceive the leaders words and actions as sincere. This finding speaks to the importance of context over content suggesting that there are no hard and fast rules.

The literature presented in this paper underscores the integral role that honest, and interactive communication play during times of organizational change. Such communication relies on the ability of a leader to recognize and admit to the uncertainty they are facing during the change process and seek the views of the employees for direction and support. When the initiative is well planned however, leaders who communicate change with clarity and provide rational justification mitigate employee resistance and perceptions of unfairness associated with a plan for change that is unlikely to succeed.

Second, I reviewed literature on leadership adaptability. In this section, I highlighted the notion that the formula for what makes an effective leader is variable, according to the features presented by the many types of change, interpersonal characteristics, and obstacles that may arise. Therefore, it is key for change leaders to be adaptable, resilient, and remain staunch in commitment to their change agenda. Ways in which a leader demonstrates adaptability include anticipating and planning for the unexpected, remaining optimistic, and perspective taking in order to understand the motivations and emotions of employees. Furthermore, a leader is likely to inspire organizational citizenship behaviours when his or her approach to relationship-building is tailored to suit the unique characteristics of each employee, rather than a one-size fits all approach.

Finally, I outlined the importance of ownership during a change and how this practice works to facilitate success in leading change. Being an effective steward of change entails maintaining a focus on the possibility of failure and success in tandem. The leader’s objective to prioritize the management of a change initiative’s people dimensions with the same importance assigned to its financial dimensions is key. Neglecting the human dimension of the change process may contribute to the formation of cynicism and harm the overall health of the organization. Taking inventory of how employees feel about the change is an effective way to give each employee a voice and stimulate their participation in the process.

In summary, this literature review has emphasized the important role that a leader’s ability to communicate, adapt, and assume ownership plays in determining the successfulness of a change initiative. Although the research reviewed provides valuable insight for change management practices, this literature review is a preliminary and non-exhaustive attempt to understand what makes a change leader successful. Future directions for this research should examine other countries and cultures. As our world becomes increasingly globalized and the cultural composition of Canada’s labour force grows more diversified, more cross-cultural research will need to be conducted before the verdict is out on what makes an effective change leader and the findings of this review can be meaningfully applied to the development of progressive change leadership practices.


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Botheridge, Celeste. “The Role of Fairness in Mediating the Effects of Voice and Justification on Stress and Other Outcomes in a Climate of Organizational Change.” International Journal of Stress Management 10, no. 3 (2003): 253-268. doi: 10.1037/1072-5245.10.3.253.

De Dreu, Carsten. K. W., Laurie Weingart, and Seungwoo Kwon. “Influence of Social Motives on Integrative Negotiation: A Meta-Analytic Review and Test of Two Theories.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 5 (2000): 889-905.

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Higgs, Malcolm, and Deborah Rowland. “All Changes Great and Small: Exploring Approaches to Change and its Leadership.” Journal of Change Management 5, no. 2 (2005): 121-151. doi: 10.1080/14697010500082902.

Huy, Quy Nguyen. “Emotional Balancing of Organizational Continuity and Radical Change: The Contribution of Middle Managers.” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2002): 31-69. doi:10.2307/3094890.

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Change management: How change leaders mitigate employees’ change-induced stress


At the most general level, organizational change is present when a workplace experiences a difference in its functions, members, leaders, or form (as cited in Weick and Quinn, 1999). This change subsequently requires an adaptive response on the part of employees (Jex, 2002). Evidence suggests that perceptions of stress in the workplace result from an employee’s cognitive appraisal of their work environment; empirical findings show that during organizational change in the form of a merger, employees consistently report feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and job insecurity (Jex). Upon consideration of the fact that change often creates these negative feelings among employees, it is reasonable to infer that change is a precursor to higher levels of stress in the workplace, which give rise to tensions that require a certain mode of leadership.

The current literature review explores how outcomes of organizational change, such as employee stress, are associated with alternative styles of leadership. The premise undergirding this paper is the notion that having a strong change leader in an organization is an effective method for mitigating employees’ change-induced stress in the workplace. Through conducting such reviews, it is hoped that practitioners will gain an improved understanding of the leadership practices that are regarded as most effective in times of organizational change. This review examines the efficacy of specific forms of leadership during organizational change, by investigating two questions:

  • How can a Manager/Leader be sure their employees do not get stressed out during change?
  • How can the leader decrease the employees’ stress?

First, I will discuss the impact of stress on the psychological well-being of employees and the relationship between stress and emotions. Then, I will explain the motivations behind employee resistance to change, by addressing the following three topics: how social interactions, attitudes, and personality traits influence levels of resistance; the features of change that predict how employees are likely to respond to change; and the ways a leader can reduce employee resistance. Finally, I will present findings suggesting that a leader’s ability to motivate positive perceptions of organizational change and change readiness hinges on their level of emotional intelligence and the type of coping strategies their employees use.

Organizational Change and Employee Stress

Recognizing that psychological stress can result from uncertainty in the workplace, Bergdahl, Larsson, Nilsson, Riklund-Ahlstrom and Nyberg (2005) employed the idea of affect to explain the interdependency between stress and emotion. Affect, for these authors, was defined as the convergence of psychological and physiological stress responses that facilitate the feeling of urgency. For example, the uncertainty stemming from the large-scale reorganization of a workplace can affect the psychological and physical well-being of employees through increased levels of distress and systolic blood pressure (Pollard, 2001).

Bergdahl and colleagues (2005) investigated how to improve an individual’s ability to cope with work-related stress. Research has shown that cognitive impairments accompany conditions of stress (as cited in Bergdahl, et. al., 2005). Specifically, researchers have found that the hippocampal-dependent function of episodic memory (e.g., memorizing a list of twelve words) is found to be impaired in high stress conditions. To mitigate the negative impact stress has on memory, Bergdahl and colleagues designed an affect intervention, aimed at increasing emotional awareness, perception, and expression. As expected, the subjects who underwent affect training experienced significant reductions in the levels of stress they perceived, including psychological symptoms. The most pronounced treatment effect was experienced by employees with the highest levels of stress and psychological symptoms.

Responding to Organizational Change

In addition to the emotional aspect of stress, researchers have been exploring the impact that interpersonal variables have on perceptions of stress during change (Lamm & Gordon, 2010; van Dijk & van Dick, 2009). Recently, Lamm and Gordon (2010) conducted a study to examine the extent that psychological empowerment and a predisposition towards adaptation contribute to the extent to which an employee will demonstrate behavioural support for change. Psychological empowerment refers to the extent that an employee perceives that they hold control, are competent, and have internalized the goals and objectives of their organization, while predisposition to adaptation is characterized by one’s readiness to adjust to change. The investigators assessed how employees perceive change by measuring the degree to which they felt autonomous, self-determined, and empowered. Results of the study indicated that regardless of the type of change, rather than predisposition, feeling empowered had a stronger influence on perceptions of stress. That is, employees who felt a sense of empowerment were less likely to experience stress during organizational change. By considering unique personality traits, such as the impact that an individual’s disposition has on his or her openness to organizational change, this study provides insight into employees’ willingness to change on a deeper level.

In a study by van Dijk and van Dick (2009), stress was indirectly assessed by measuring attitude. The authors were interested in two attitudinal variables; the first being the attitudes held by employees towards the change, namely a merger, and the second being the attitude of the leader towards employee resistance. The attitude of a change leader is a highly important factor to take into account. Considering attitude provides a potential explanation for the source of resistance and a measurable feature of the change process that can be targeted to reduce stress. By examining employee and leader attitudes, this study provides evidence of how the two can interact during change. Recently it has been shown by Rubin, Dierdorff, Bommer, and Baldwin (2009) that leaders who are cynical about organizational change are weaker performers on the job and exhibit less positive on the job behaviours. Further, cynicism among leaders has been associated with a negative impact on the performance of employees’ as well.

Numerous studies (e.g., Boselie & Koene, 2010; Lamm & Gordon, 2010; van Dijk & van Dick, 2009) have discussed the negative effect change has on the work-based identity of individuals. In relation, van Dijk and van Dick’s study found that aside from the content of the change itself, two features are found to have a negative impact on the attitude of employees, particularly their work-based identity. The first is the quality of relationships present between a leader and their employees, and the second is the communicative interactions which take place between the two. A major finding of this study emphasized the importance of the change leader creating a sense of continuity for their employees, in the midst of a changing environment. This ability was found to overcome negative effects of the change on employees’ identities and reduce employee resistance.

Leading Organizational Change

Research investigating how outcomes of organizational change, such as stress, are associated with alternative styles of leadership is limited. However, recently Waldman and Javidan (2009) proposed a model to show that charismatic leadership is a key driver behind the ultimate success of an organizational merger or acquisition. A charismatic leader is characterized by having the ability to motivate followers to shift from a state of hopelessness into enthusiasm by giving them a sense of purpose. The charisma of the leader thus results in a strong tendency for followers to transcend their own self-interests for the sake of the collective (as cited in DeGroot, Kiker, & Cross, 2000). Charisma is one of the defining features of transformational leadership.

The research of Neilson and Munir (2009) suggests that the trait which enables a transformational leader to influence the affective well-being of their employees is self-efficacy. By transcending short-term goals and focusing on the higher-order needs of those under their supervision, individuals engaging in transformational leadership are known to motivate their followers to perform above and beyond expectations (Judge and Piccolo, 2004). The following four components constitute transformational leadership. They are as follows: idealistically influential, inspirationally motivational, intellectually stimulating, and individually considerate. Overall, a transformational style of leadership is predicted to develop exemplary followers who trust them, are optimistic about the future, willing to question them and focus on continuous improvement and development (Aviolo and Bass, 1998). In considering these findings it is worth noting that a non-significant difference between charismatic and transformational leadership styles has been established, which shows that the two are equally valid (Judge and Piccolo, 2004).

Rafferty and Griffin (2006) suggest that the way an employee responds to organizational change is marked by the following three change leadership features: (a) frequency, how often the change is introduced, (b) impact, how much the nature of work, values and structure of the organization change, and (c) planning, the amount of effort towards communicating the change prior to implementation. Counterintuitively, the researchers found that the more frequently change occurred, the more unpredictable employees perceived each change. In turn, this uncertainty caused employees to also feel fatigued by the change. Similar to change frequency, the degree of novelty introduced by change also figured importantly into the outcome of stress. The authors found that because highly novel changes required employees to act in new ways and adopt new values, they were associated with higher levels of stress.

Allen, Stelzner, and Wielkiewicz (1998) presented similar views regarding novelty, explaining that the novelty of change and psychological doubt about what change signifies leads to feelings of uncertainty. They emphasized the importance of communication during times of change, proposing that uncertainty can be reduced when a leader identifies change-relevant information and communicates it to their employees.

In an attempt to better understand the motivations behind employee resistance to change and the way change is managed by change leaders, van Dijk and van Dick (2009) proposed that an employee’s perception of a change leader is largely influenced by the way the change leader’s intention are perceived. The study characterized resistance to change as a fluid construct and explored how it is influenced by social interactions. A main conclusion of the study suggested that the negative consequences that are often associated with a change, such as loss of status, are likely to present a threat to an employee’s work-based identity.

Also highlighting the problem of a loss of organizational identity, Boselie & Koene, (2010) investigated the role a human resource department plays as a catalyst for change leadership. Their study looked at change occurring in the context of a private equity buyout (PEB). Causing workplace reorganization comparable to a merger or acquisition, PEBs are known to exert a significant impact on the affected parties, such as a significant loss in jobs, which coincides with increased part-time employment. Thus, expected responses to a PEB include defensiveness, fear, uncertainty, stress, and a loss of personal and organizational identity.

In order to combat the negative impact such change has on employees, Boselie and Koene’s study identified several ways a human resource department can mitigate resistance to change. First, by explicitly recognizing and admitting to the uncertainty the leadership is facing during the change process the organization is more effective at earning the employees’ trust. This finding is particularly important because subsequent to a merger, both institutional trust and levels of employee confidence in the respective organization suffer due to a loss of identity. Second, by distinguishing concrete short-term objectives from more nebulous long-term goals, a change leader reduces the problem of ambiguity, inherent in leading change initiatives.

During a PEB, timing is of the essence and involvement from human resources at an early stage of the change assists in developing employee commitment to change as well as promoting employee retention. Furthermore, in times of change, two of the most influential factors affecting the amount of confidence employees have in their leader are (a) the employees’ ability to identify with their leader and (b) the degree to which employees perceive their leader as competent (Boselie & Koene, 2010).

To address the way a leader can decrease employee stress induced by change, this section will discuss the research of Groves (2006). Incorporating the concept of emotional intelligence, his study assessed how a leader’s use of emotional expressivity works to motivate the way employees perceive organizational change. As a dimension of emotional intelligence, emotional expressivity is defined as nonverbal and emotional form of communication (Groves). The leadership behaviours examined for the purposes of the study were called “visionary” and centered upon the ability of a leader to create, communicate, and implement a vision seen as vivid and desirable. It was hypothesized that a leader’s level of emotional expressivity would moderate the strength of the relationship between visionary leadership and the effectiveness of an organizational change. Consistent with this prediction, there was a significant interaction effect between a leader’s emotional expressivity and visionary leadership. Independent of emotional expressivity, visionary leadership did not elicit a direct effect on organizational change. This finding suggests that visionary leadership alone might be inadequate for motivating a commitment to organizational change.

Huy (2002) found that successful organizational change resulted from two abilities of a leader: first, the ability to display emotional commitment to the change; and second, the leader’s awareness of the emotions of others throughout the change process. Other researchers (e.g., Herold, Fedor, Liu, and Caldwell, 2008) have also commented on the importance of commitment to organizational change and sought to examine how certain kinds of leaders are able to bring it out in their followers. According to Herold and colleagues there are two situational factors which interact to determine the level of commitment employees feel for change, namely, the impact of the change on the employees’ job and transformational leadership.

Another component of the change process that influences employee stress is change readiness. In 2008, Walinga proposed a framework to evaluate the role of leadership as a variable of organizational change in the corporate world by exploring the association between leadership and stress appraisal. The purpose of the study was to gain insight on how to best equip people with the confidence and perceived self-efficacy they need in the face of change. Acknowledging the psychological and emotional complexity involved in confronting a stressor such as change, Walinga was interested in exploring how one’s appraisal of change often determines the coping strategies employed. The study operationally defined change readiness as the state in which one is best prepared to change internally because one is best prepared for changes in the environment. Creating internal preparedness was put forth as the ability of a leader to empower employees by cultivating feelings of confidence, clarity, and control.

Walinga’s study revealed that appraisals of change as something existing beyond one’s control, led to emotion-focused coping, rather than more effective problem-focused coping. This finding suggested that the key to effective change lies in the individual’s appraisal of the change and the extent to which the change is perceived as stressful. An individual’s perceived control over the change and acknowledgement of his or her lack of control as being non-threatening in a situation may lead to a more problem-focused approach. Reframing was recommended as a way this can be achieved by leaders. When challenges are reframed, the individual is focused on the aspects of change that are controllable, thereby making it more likely for problem-focused coping to occur. Shifting from an emotional stance to a control-oriented focus was deemed necessary for the leader as well as the employees.


In conclusion, this review has examined the effects of change leadership practices on employee stress in the changing workplace. I explored three broad and related topics, including the link between organizational change and employee stress, the ways in which employees respond to change, and the ways in which leaders manage change.

Included in this review is a description of interventions aimed at increasing change leaders’ emotional awareness, perception, and expressivity as effective ways in which a leader may reduce employee stress during organizational change. I also discussed the impact that interpersonal variables, such as empowerment and adaptability, have on employees’ perceptions of stress. Research in this area suggests that there is a strong correlation between feelings of empowerment and feelings of stress during change. That is, the more an employee feels empowered during change, the less like he or she is to feel stressed by organizational change. This finding speaks to the proven effectiveness of a transformational leaders’ ability to influence the affective well-being of their employees by enhancing feelings of self-efficacy.

The literature presented in this paper underscores the integral role that a leader plays during times of organizational change. More specifically, leaders who communicate change with clarity and introduce it less frequently mitigate employee stress associated with frequently and poorly communicated change implementations. An effective way to introduce change may, therefore, be doing it progressively. This would ensure that employees are prepared for the change and help to reduce the incidence of any shocks accompanying novelty. Further, in order to minimize high frequency change, it may be more efficient and less stressful for leaders to bundle complementary changes together, instead of rolling them out one by one. Honest and effective communication relies on the ability of a leader to recognize and admit to the uncertainty they are facing during the change process.

This literature review also highlighted the notion that the association between organizational change and employee stress is emotionally charged, and it is key for change leaders to develop a better understanding of this association in order to overcome the employee resistance to change that may occur. Ways in which a leader can be more aware of the link between organizational change and employee stress include displaying emotional commitment to the change, as well as being sensitive to the emotions of the employees. However, an individual is likely to be more successful at coping with change when his or her perspective of change is grounded in a problem-focused approach, rather than an emotional-focused approach.

My literature review explored the leadership traits and practices to reduce employee stress. This literature review is a preliminary and non-exhaustive attempt to understand this correlation.

In summary, this literature review has emphasized the important role that an individual’s emotions and commitment to change play in the context of change. Although the research reviewed provides valuable insight for change management practices, research that examines the relationship between change-induced stress and alternative forms of leadership remains scarce. The present review provides a resource to redress this need for continued research in the area of employee stress caused by organizational change, as the importance of this subject matter continues to grow.

Amelia Moslemi worked with the IRC throughout the 2010-2011 academic year as a student researcher. With an keen interest in change management, Amelia conducted a review of the literature in this area. This paper is the initial results of her work. Amelia recently completed the Master of Industrial Relations program at Queen’s University. As part of her program, she completed her studies by participating in a spring term exchange at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.


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