The Case for Change at Humber College: The HRMS Innovation Project

Humber CollegeOrganizational change is a constant challenge today and plays a significant role for organizational leadership in institutions of higher education. On a daily basis organizations are challenged to improve their business performance, and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or to increase business effectiveness.

Over the past two years Humber College has undergone significant change towards being strategically positioned as the leader in Polytechnic education in Ontario.  In September 2013 Humber launched a revitalized brand to support student success.

In supporting Humber’s value of innovation, Human Resources Services over the next year and a half, will undertake a transformational change initiative to our HR systems most notably with the design and implementation of a new Human Resources Management System (HRMS) technology business platform for managing our HR processes.

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Change Management 101: What Every Change Manager and Change Leader Needs to Know BEFORE Jumping into Implementation

Are you the leader of a change effort and stuck in the weeds? Have you read the latest Change Management book, but no one seems to be following you? Are you frustrated that your team or your organization seem to have forgotten that you shared your vision with them already?

It could be that you have a sense of your vision but you haven’t defined it in detail. It could be that your vision doesn’t captivate your team. It could be that you are focusing your efforts on creating the perfect plan. It could be that you are all about implementing but haven’t focused on preparing for or planning the change.  This article highlights the important difference between managing change and leading change. I then go on to share the first three keys to successful change.

Leading Change versus Managing Change

Leaders don’t force people to follow them; they invite people on a journey. (Charles S. Lauer)

In today’s world of on-going change coupled with a scary rate of failure, it is super important to realize, or remember, that there is a massive difference between leading change and managing change.

It is so easy to mix up these two very important roles. For your organization to be successful in your change efforts, you cannot afford to mix up these roles or their responsibilities.

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. (Peter Drucker)

The Change Leader is the Captain of the ship, the one who determines WHERE the organization needs to go, and provides the ongoing drive and resources necessary to reach the goal.

The Change Manager is the First Mate, responsible for the crew, overseeing the details of the change voyage and managing the resources; figuring out HOW to get there.

Clear Vision

Without a vision, change can dissolve into a list of confusing, incompatible, time-consuming projects that either go in the wrong direction or nowhere at all. (John Kotter, 1996)

Having a clear vision is THE most important part of your change. We need clarity around where we are going – a compelling, comprehensive and clearly-defined change goal.  What will it look like when we are there? What will we need to get there? How are we going to get there?

We need to start sketching in as much detail as we can, as early as we can.  It’s not enough to say we want to be ‘an employer of choice’. It’s not enough to say we need to ‘be a team’. What does that really mean?  It may mean high(er) employee satisfaction rates, measured through satisfaction surveys, absenteeism, sick leave requests, innovation measures, low(er) turnover. It can mean whatever you want it to mean, for your organization and for your stakeholders, but, you have to be clear.

The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime. (Babe Ruth)

Committed Champion

If you’re a champion, you have to have it in your heart. (Chris Evert)

I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion. (Billie Jean King)

Regardless of the size of your change, you MUST have a champion.  The Champion is the person with the excitement, drive and vision to see you through the difficult times and to celebrate the good times.  The Champion is the person who can speak intelligently and passionately about the change.  The Champion is the person who defines and then supports the resources necessary to achieve the change – yes that means the time, the dollars, and the people.

The primary task of change leaders is NOT making people feel comfortable during change; it is helping them to succeed despite their discomfort. (unknown)

The Champion determines (with input from others of course) whether the change is a business imperative or a good idea. They openly demonstrate and endorse the change. They authorize resources and have the power to both reward and reprimand.

The Champion must be at the top of the ladder for the change.  A manager should NEVER be selected as the champion for an organization-wide change initiative.  They won’t be taken seriously, they won’t have the necessary clout, and they certainly won’t be able to effectively reward or reprimand.  The Champion must have the respect of the people involved in the change.  If not, there will be a lot of lip service paid to their requests, but nothing will really change.

The Champion has to be the model of the change. Whether it is developing a high-performing team or turning a billion-dollar organization around, the Champion sets the tone AND maintains the energy.  If the Champion is paying lip-service to the change, all of the employees will also pay lip-service!

Continuous Communication

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. (George Bernard Shaw)

Of course, we all know communication is important.  Without communication, you will be relying solely on ESP.  This may work in some circles but, for most of us, we need steady communication, through numerous channels, delivered over and over.  As leaders, we need to repeat our messages over and over and over again.  Why? Because sometimes people just aren’t listening, or they forget, or they aren’t following the details.  As leaders we hate repetition, but it is absolutely critical.  It also serves to show everyone that we are still focused and still committed to the change.  People need to understand where they fit in.  They need to understand why the change is necessary, AND the benefits to them and the organization, AND what’s not changing, AND what the challenges are expected to be.  Tell the whole story!

Change is a disruption of expectations – successful change requires an expectation of disruption. (unknown)

The field of Change Management has been around for years, and there are millions of dollars thrown away every year highlighting that we still don’t understand it. If you and your organization follow the tips in this article, you will be well on your way to being one of the select few that are able to implement a successful change!

About the Author

Sharon Parker

Sharon Parker has demonstrated expertise in individual and organizational development and change management, and has held a number of senior advisory positions within the Canadian federal public service and the private sector. Her firm, CoreShift Inc., specializes in supporting executives in leading individual and organizational change. She holds an Honours B.A. (Psychology) and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Queen’s University. Sharon is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Change Management program.

Reinventing Perspectives on Organizational Change

Today’s business environment is dynamic and highly uncertain. To become and remain successful, organizations must successfully respond to constantly changing conditions. This paper will provide a brief overview of the various perspectives that have guided the field of organization development and change management, with sections that will describe practical application of change management intervention methods for targets of change, and understanding organizational change resistance.

This paper will also introduce the reader to a rich literature review to assist in understanding the breadth of this field, and while there is a great deal known in the area of organizational development and change management, there is a full range of issues still to be addressed. This provides the change practitioner with an overview of the approach and methodology used to identify the relevant literature from the peer-reviewed research literature, as I wanted to integrate the results of this review with an overall assessment of the implications of practical applications.

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Integrating Organizational Change: Scholarship and Work Practice


Researchers and practitioners both seek to explain phenomena in the real world and to give an account for the data they consider relevant. There are opportunities to understand current issues as they relate to future trends, generating dialogue to assist research, while providing an opportunity for each to gain insight from each other’s point of view. The purpose of this paper is to form a rich and integrated understanding of the phenomena of organizational change within a project environment, exploring the frameworks upon which classical change theory is developed. I discuss the role of research and the application of research findings in this area of study, based on one Canadian utility company’s performance with change initiatives. I will offer advice on the need for a more integrated conceptual framework between scholarly knowledge and practitioner experience in working with organizational change. A review of multidisciplinary literature on change management models is presented in conjunction with this framework. The framework is then applied as a basis for deriving the effectiveness of the change management implementation during one organization’s change initiative.

The Need for Better Integration

Bentz and Shapiro’s (1999) view is that society has moved toward being a knowledge-based society, and structured inquiry of a scholarly kind has come to shape knowledge in every field. The notion of scholarship does not just represent knowing the subject matter of a discipline; it’s equally about competence in the specific methods of scholarly inquiry in the field. There is tremendous value in bringing together the contribution of the scholar and practitioner, promising significant gains in knowledge of the world and improvements to interventions in it. Each role has its contributions and limitations. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection. The practitioner brings experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge. The scholarship of integration makes connections between the disciplines, and explores the wider relevance and usefulness of knowledge.

Scholarly work and their results need to be relevant and of value to the requirements of practitioners. Practitioner knowledge and experience-based feelings should recognize the value in establishing an epistemology of practice that indicates when or why certain interventions should be used for this partnership to work. In other words, the skills, rules, and knowledge of human behavior should be used by practitioners to develop approaches that are compatible with multiple ways of knowing or sources of information. Adding to this contradictory relationship, the field of change management includes extensive popular management literature and an abundance of independent consultants who sell applications of one methodology as the solution to all organizational problems. This is often confusing to businesses, since consultants appear to have anecdotal evidence that their solutions work. What is often lacking is good scholarship that helps users of management consultants’ ideas know how to decide when and if the theory will solve their problems.

History – Informing Practice

There is no shortage of articles on organizational change theory, organizational development, or any number of the other descriptors for this field of study. However, the literature suggests that there is not one single approach or methodology that is comprehensive, yet concise enough to serve as a practical guide for those who wish to advance a change initiative in their practice or a comprehensive theory that understands organizations and guides change approaches (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995; Dunphy, 1981). This mutually exclusive approach to change has resulted in a mixture of change models that often fail to promote the general understanding of this subject matter, even though they all contain elements of truth.

One of the first individuals to study change theoretically was Lewin who, in the 1950s, led a group of social psychologists studying organizational change. They immersed themselves in a culture with managers inside organizations (Kleiner, 2008). Lewin and his colleagues described change as involving an unfreezing process, learning or changing process, and a refreezing process. Practitioners keen to follow Lewin’s (1947) approach to change concentrated on best practices for successful implementation of change, and provided models, frameworks, tools, and cases to assist practitioners in managing change more effectively (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Kotter, 1996).

There are a variety of ways of categorizing the majority of the change management models that provide prescriptive steps of what to do and what not to do (Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996). These models have largely been developed from the authors’ experiences with companies either as consultants and/or researchers. Groupings of change management models are available that provide specific diagnostic tools and approaches to support key change management issues, such as resistance to change (Eriksson, 2004; Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979), rates of adoption of change for individuals (Huy, 2001), communications (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995), and organizational culture (Schein, 1984; 1992; 2009).

Many authors, scholars, and researchers have described the steps involved in planning and managing change. Kotter (1996) described eight steps to transforming an organization, including establishing a sense of urgency, forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision, communicating the vision, empowering others to act on the vision, planning for and creating short-term wins, consolidating improvements and producing still more change, and institutionalizing new approaches. Ackerman-Anderson and Anderson (2001) describe a change leadership process that is continuous and non-linear, and incorporates an evaluation component. Their steps include: preparing to lead the change, creating vision, commitment and capacity, assessing the situation and determining design requirements, designing the desired state, analyzing the impact, planning and organizing for implementation, implementing the change, celebrating and integrating the new state, and learning and course-correcting. Authors Van de Ven and Poole (1995) addressed change from the perspective of life cycle changes, teleological, dialectical, and evolutionary changes. Their conclusion suggests that each theory is typically incomplete in its description and classification of change because organizations do not exist within a vacuum and one theory can address the assumptions of another.

The field of organizational development and change is widely known for its large spectrum of theories that strive to understand and explain individual, group, and organizational change. Historically, these diverse theories have haphazardly combined and crossed levels of abstraction and analysis. Porras and Robertson (1987) developed two types of organizational development theory that help to exemplify the ongoing tension between the theory of change and the practice of changing. They stated that the findings of academic research associated with change theory should inform practice. Their contribution of implementation theory focuses on the intervention activities needed to execute effective planned change.

Understanding organizational change requires more than one theory (Dunphy, 1981; Dunphy & Stace, 1988). Dunphy further considered the components of a comprehensive theory of organizational change. Frameworks such as this allow us to evaluate theoretical approaches and determine whether the theory is complete, allow us to compare theoretical traditions, and determine whether they are similar or different. This provides a greater understanding about the ways in which we would direct our attention in analysis with regard to internal or external factors affecting the organization, and to the levels of analysis with key groups within the workforce.

Though there have been recent developments in refining change theory, it is important to note that my use of change theory in this paper is done in a very broad sense. Continual refinements in change theory will have strong parallel implications for implementation. Businesses are recognizing that change continues to build at an alarming rate, it is viewed as a continuous process, and that a systematic and disciplined structure is required for managing this tremendous amount of change.

Role of Research and Integration

Research is not often used as a basis for action in organizations and the experience of organizations are not used as a basis for generalizing theory. This has been, and remains, a significant learning opportunity for integration of scholarship and practice. The following example explores the nature of integration of scholarship and practice across the multi-disciplinary field of change management. This offers insights into the perspectives, methodologies, and frameworks of theoretical scholarship and practice. In the following section, I will (1) explore an understanding of what academic theories, models, and research inform the practice, (2) observe whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions; and, (3) comment on the ways in which an integration of scholarship and research be integrated into the practice of organizational change.

By carrying out research, focusing on a real business situation, interesting results are often found. The change process evaluated in this paper describes how a large Canadian utility developed and approved an information technology strategy that called for replacement of business systems and processes. To commence implementation of this information technology strategy, the company initiated a business transformation strategy. In order to achieve this transformation strategy, a project was put in place to replace core, enterprise, information technology systems, and transform the corporate culture. What companies have realized today is that there is a need to successfully manage this tremendous amount of organizational change in order to remain competitive and to improve business performance.

The question this case scenario asks is: Did this organization use formal change management techniques based on organizational change theory to ensure the success of change initiatives? And, I ask, why should an integrated conceptual framework and methodology for managing change initiatives be considered an important discipline in the business environment? For a change project to be successfully managed, the change it creates must be approached in the same disciplined manner (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002). A number of change management and project management models adopted by businesses today are designed to assist change projects that are intended to create new business processes or transform existing ones to accomplish major goals that projects bring to the organization. With the variety of models, frameworks, and theoretical perspectives available (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Beer & Nohia, 2000; Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996), many agree that organizational transformations involving large-scale, strategic change require a planned approach, a road map for providing direction on how to arrive at an organization’s desired state.

Given a common definition for change management as a set of processes that are employed to ensure that significant changes are implemented in an orderly, controlled, and systematic fashion to effect organizational change (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Cowan-Sahadath, 2010; Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002) and the review of literature and research on organizational change theory described earlier, I have shown that a one-size-fits-all approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to customize and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change.

My work is informed by my experience as an internal change management consultant. Incorporating expertise offered by scholars, in addition to practitioner experience, links relevant theory to a series of concrete and practical steps that one can execute via an integrated framework. Questions I might start with include: Would you design and implement major organization change based on an approach or framework that is supported by research and validation? Will the framework accelerate the achievement of your stated outcomes?

I now present a high-level overview of an Integrated Change Framework (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) that includes an integration of multidisciplinary theories and research to help plan, design, and implement organization and people changes. It organizes processes for moving the organization from its current status to where it needs to be to ensure continued success in the business. As a framework, it does not specify what to change; instead, it provides guidance for how to change so that you accomplish your intended business outcomes while simultaneously engaging the people in the organization in positive ways. The Framework is organized using a project management methodology with each of the phases identified clearly along with their respective activities and tasks and incorporates change management processes.

An Integrated Change Framework

The elements of the Integrated Change Framework represent the inherent logic and flow of activities for leading and achieving real change. This conceptual framework provides a set of coherent ideas organized for communication purposes, to assist in understanding the interconnections of activities and elements, and provides a basis for thinking about what we do and what it means. The author developed this integrated conceptual framework for project change leadership (Figure 1). Figure 1 depicts the conceptual framework of this change management approach, set in the context of a dynamic organizational environment, focusing on the context of leaders at work, and subject to the employer’s organizational change agenda and corporate strategy. The role for leadership operates at every intersection of the framework, however of particular focus in this framework is the focus on leaderships role within the change management framework.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change

Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change
Examining the Business Environment

During the implementation of this integrated change management framework, the business recalled past projects and change initiatives in which a change initiative faltered because the vision did not provide others with the necessary direction or support to make the change happen. There were examples where people or groups were more relationship-driven, yet nothing concrete was accomplished. Given the complexity of the example discussed in this paper, the leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management techniques, training, and project staff management processes.

Change Management Framework

A structured approach to change is used to describe the management of change in this business. It represents aligning relevant combinations of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems in the organization in order to make change happen in a structured, systematic manner. It involves elements of the company’s mission, vision, and values, and a project management methodology providing the foundation for all change in the organization. All change initiatives are grounded in and demonstrate clear and strong support to one or more of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. The business case for change identified what combination(s) of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems were not aligned and the implications for the misalignment on the business for fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values.

The desired future articulates what a stronger alignment of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems would actually look like and how that alignment would strengthen the organization in fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values. The readiness level of key stakeholders (those directly affected by the change or those who have influence over others) must be assessed, including: how they perceive the benefits from the change, their dissatisfaction with the existing situation, how they perceive the effort required to make the change, and how they perceive the challenges associated with the change. This assessment influences the strategies and plans that need to be followed in dealing with key stakeholders. The strategy addresses the fundamental “how” in achieving the desired future, given the readiness levels of key stakeholders. In the face of strong support for the change, the strategy may be to drive it forward in a short period of time, with a minimum level of engagement. In the face of strong resistance, however, the strategy may involve a higher degree of engagement over a longer timeframe. The plan to get to the desired future details the results to be achieved, actions to be taken to get there, accountability for those actions, a time frame for completion and measures to assess progress.

Implementation is the movement forward with the strategy and plan with a strong focus on measurement of both the processes and results, and a willingness to consider revisions to the plan in the face of unforeseen. Sustainment establishes processes and ownership of those processes to ensure against slippage of the alignment that has been achieved and its results, so that they become an ongoing part of the organization and how it works. Lessons learned identifies what is working and not working and why in bringing about change. It assesses both the process and the results and needs to be conducted at periodic stages of alignment initiatives, not just at its conclusion.

Project Management Framework

The leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management plans, employee engagement, and management accountabilities. Integrated strategic change strategies and organizational systems are coordinated in response to external and internal influences. An example would be a strategic change plan that is developed to help employees manage the transition between a current strategy and organization design and the desired future strategic orientation.

In the early stages of the project life cycle there was an opportunity to build a foundation for managing the change, assessing how the impact would affect the people and the organization through project sponsorship. To establish a realistic change framework for managing change at this company, they needed to change the way they would lead change. One of the leading contributors to project success was strong, visible sponsorship and leadership. The literature on change leadership implies that leaders have a responsibility to guide an organization through a course of change by providing direction and support throughout the process (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Griffith-Cooper & King, 2007). Leaders are encouraged to demonstrate change leadership behaviours, set a vision, and communicate effectively in a way that their organization understands and will want to follow the new direction of change (Kotter, 2005). In this review, the change management and project management models adopted by this organization, integrated the management of the tremendous amount of change the project brings to the organization. Management of this project and the changing business environment was best managed by focused project management and effectively managing the changes through a formal framework.

Organizational Performance

While the project management and change management practitioner communities suggest that integrated frameworks are applied for managing change in organizations (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002; Kotter, 1996), the research community has been slow to recognize the interaction and value between change management and project management in implementing change (Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Thomas & Mullaly, 2008). I suggested earlier that one approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to adapt and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change. The context in which this organization operates, including its history and culture, have a significant impact on its ability to manage change. It was important for a company to examine the business’ current circumstance and recent history and the challenges they represent to the successful implementation of a change initiative. Cultural differences are legitimate outgrowths of the distinct nature of the work, and some are unnecessary “silos” that get in the way of operational efficiency and co-operation.

In light of all of these challenges—past, current, and future—effective change management will represent the most important prerequisite to success with future change initiatives. It has been essential that the organization understands the cultural challenges faced in times of such rapid implementation and change. Reviewing these challenges and the systems and contexts that affect the operation of the business, provides a foundation of understanding on which to base research and in selecting change management frameworks grounded in theory. This understanding leads to practical application that supports intended business needs and outcomes.

Context for Integrating Research and Practice for Success

The purpose of this paper suggested that a deeper understanding of the complexity of change initiatives be understood; and, exploring the change management frameworks upon which classical change theory has been developed, would explain how and why particular things happen or do not happen. Some of these theories are vague conceptualizations about what will happen if we act in a certain way, in a certain situation, and what we might expect from others. But many of the theories we hold are more complex and express our understandings of, for example, how organizations work, and how organizations and people react to change.

In order to link theoretical knowledge to practice, as a scholar practitioner, I have begun to see the clear link from theory and what works within the organization. Without this experience though, theory can become something that seems abstract. From a practitioner perspective, with this particular example in mind, I can determine that the change frameworks have been developed based on theory, however complex they may appear. Essentially, theory helps to explain a situation, describe what is happening, explain why is it happening, and often, predict what is likely to happen next. This is of tremendous value to the practitioner. In addition, I observed whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions. The Integrated Change Framework applied in this example incorporated process steps that design the implementation, and plans the initial event. Internal consultants and leaders view the initial event or intervention as a non-linear and continuous change activity and assume there is much to learn from the experience. Throughout the implementation, internal consultants and leaders observe the results, often taking time as a group to discuss what is happening and how the implementation might be adjusted in the future. Adjustments and course corrections are also made, based on experience with similar events and past implementations. After the event, there is a debrief on how the process went, decision on whether or not to continue to develop further concepts, and planning for the next steps. There is also discussion regarding what patterns were observed and how they relate to past observations, not going as far as developing formal theory, but certainly continuing to build our own theories on how the organization works.

Experienced practitioners already know many meaningful practices. If academic research can add to these, it must proceed from a theory of what experienced practitioners fail to know and why they fail to know it. Research energy can be invested in, improving the understanding of highly-skilled practitioners, practitioners with limited skills or experience, and academic researchers. Adopting a variety of theories in this work offers us, as scholar practitioners, the ability to make sense of a situation, the ability to generate ideas about what is going on, and why things are as they are; using theory can help to justify actions and explain practice. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection and the practitioner contributes through experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge within the organization.


About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.



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The Forgotten Risk: Dealing with Project Manager Departures

Projects are often the means by which much change is instituted within organizations. As such, the literature and concern with project management are also increasing. There does not seem to be the attention in the literature that specifically looks at the impact when a change in project leadership occurs during the life-cycle of a project. This is an important practical concern and project risk, as it happens often enough to be raised by senior executives. Given that there is little evidence in the project management literature, I have turned to the literature in the management field on leadership, change management, and dealing with the unexpected that provides some insights.

I begin with an exploration of the role and importance of the project leader, and then discuss the types of changes going on in organizations that might impact project leadership. I conclude by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the literature reviewed in helping us deal with this practical problem. Finally, I provide recommendations for practitioners facing this situation and for further research in this area.

Key Leadership Characteristics For Successful Projects

This review recognized that there are many levels of leadership required within a project, however for the purposes of this review, I focus on the project leader/manager as the person responsible for the overall execution of the project (Briner, Hastings, & Geddes, 2001). I want to focus on when a project leader change takes place mid-project and how this loss impacts the project. Having an understanding of the role of the project leader and competencies required for a successful project outcome, will help the reader understand the impacts caused by a sudden leadership departure.

There seems to be general agreement on common characteristics required of project managers including a variety of leadership and interpersonal skills, organizational competencies, technical expertise, team building, project management, and relationship skills (Ammeter & Dukerich, 2002; Benimadhu, 2003a-b; Mourier & Smith, 2001; Pinto, 1998; Story, 2003). Likewise, Pinto (1998) and Mourier and Smith (2001) underscore the value that the leadership component of the project manager’s role is one of the single most important characteristics in successfully implementing projects. While there are a number of factors related to the success of organizational change efforts, among them is having a strong project manager. And intuitively, Mourier and Smith add that correlated with failure, is a project manager’s departure before the project is completed. This suggests that it is the project team leader who is a critical component to the success of the project and, in fact, may be perceived by team members as highly influential on the performance of the project team.

As projects increasingly become the means by which major organizational change is instituted, project manager skills and behaviours have greater influence on contributing to the success of projects; projects that are both complex and continually affected by change. Several Corporate Leadership Council Research studies (2003a-d) indicate that companies undergoing corporate transformation are at risk of the change initiative failing, due to people issues. Their work supports this paper’s theory that losing key people will contribute to this risk and that strong leadership is essential to successful change implementation. While their specific findings address broad corporate transformations, if we consider the project environment during this time of transformation as characterized by any number of changes: personnel changes, resource shortfalls, budget cuts, design failures, requests that speed up delivery, management changes, new government regulations, and the list goes on (Deeprose, 2001; Kotter, 1996, 2005), they all add to the complexity, urgency, and impact on the organization and team.

While any number of changes can affect organizations today, my focus, the change that influences project manager departures from projects, warrants a closer look at what might be the contributing factors to those unexpected departures occurring prior to the completion of a project. In particular, losing a key project leader is fundamentally important to project success and businesses should understand the importance of understanding the impact of leadership change on a project.

The developing model (Table 1) illustrates the types of factors affecting organizations that contribute to project manager turnover. Given today’s turbulent and uncertain business environment, I suggest that organizations consider the following model to understand the change drivers contributing to unexpected turnover of project leaders. This model outlines:

  • Contributing Factors to Changes
  • Impact on Projects contributing to Project Risk
  • Impacts on Project Team Members

This model lays out the root causes, impacts on projects and the organization, and team member perceptions that have to be addressed. Depending on the impact, the model indicates the possibility or project risk the unexpected change in project leadership has.

Given the limited research on managing the risk of a project manager/leader change in the literature, this might suggest, as my article title indicates, that this a hidden risk on projects.

Table 1
Contributing Factors to Changes in Project Leadership

Contributing Factors to Unexpected Turnover of Project Managers

Impact on Projects

Strategic Options

 Long-Term Strategic Options

Labour market

  • Macroeconomic growth
  • Consumer changes
Scarce skilled resources

High turnover due to other opportunities

Disruption to project continuity

Offer challenging work

Competitive compensation

Strategic planning

  • Leaner, more dynamic
  • Restructuring, downsizing, acquisitions
  • Business models becoming obsolete
Availability of resources to draw from at all levels

Difficult to predict whether employees will still be around

Loss of job security

Huge costs in process re-engineering and improvement initiatives

Lack of motivation within organization for projects of this type (flavour of the month)

Offer challenging work

Create sense of urgency

Honesty about business case

Multi-skilled leaders in leadership and project management competencies

Create career opportunities

Business Changes

  • Organizational priorities shift
  • Increase in change initiatives
  • More complex and global business challenges
Inconvenience, transform, or terminate project

Transition to project culture and adapt to team’s working behaviours

Time and quality of information provided by team members, hidden agendas, trust might take time to re-develop

Too much to manage

Too few and different capabilities required

Understanding cultural issues

Watch for signs and prepare for changes before they happen

Seek alternative resourcing options including external

Strategic planning to remain focused on key business priorities
Crisis Events

  • The boss drops dead
  • Catastrophe
Shock and unexpected effect on team members

Unexpectedness leading to unprepared replacement plan or inexperienced/not fully capable replacement

Information/knowledge not documented/shared

Counseling services provided to team

Ensure appropriate documentation procedures in place

Develop a high reliability performance organization, practicing mindfulness
Human Resources

  • Lessening organizational loyalty
  • Rapid turnover of senior staff
  • Incompetence
  • Increased importance of human capital
  • ‘Accidental’ project managers assigned due to availability
Quick and frequent departures

Mindset/expectations and priorities of employees are different/changing and need to be managed differently

Team unity (i.e., team member behaviours become guarded, control becomes an issue)

Feeling loss of senior management support

Questioning roles and responsibilities; team struggles with issues, assessing whether their roles will change or be understood by new leader

Frustration, lack of hope, lack of commitment

Lack of results

Departed can become an easy target to blame project weaknesses

Competition both internally and externally for resources

Knowledge gap

Competitive compensation

Challenging work

Networking opportunities

Team workarounds

Reporting and monitoring

Paying attention to results

Operational audit

Strong team skills

Project manager selection review process

Legally contract to end of project

Maintaining organizational competitive advantage

Succession management

Knowledge management

New thinking and new frameworks

Filling the knowledge gap through resourcing plans

Managing the Risk

What can organizations do before losing a key project leader to mitigate the risk of this unexpected event? Weick and Sutcliff’s (2001) work suggests that high reliability organizations have developed ways of managing the unexpected and demonstrate five characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with failures rather than successes
  • Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Commitment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

Organizations that establish themselves by these characteristics are better able to notice the unexpected. Weick and Sutcliff term this “mindfulness” (p. 17). For the purposes of this review and how a change in leadership affects a project, Weick and Sutcliff is suggesting that if your organization is a high reliability organization and demonstrates mindfulness, then the capability for catching the unexpected happens earlier. This means the organization would be in a position to see the signs that a leader might jump ship or leave for better opportunities, thus minimizing the impact felt by the organization and the project team. Identifying the unexpected does not disable these organizations and their ability to cope does not make the situation worse by being caught off guard.

Anticipating and becoming aware of the unexpected before problems become severe requires taking action before the event happens. This requires watching for signs in the organization regarding resource trends/movements and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Containing the unexpected when it does occur would require equipping project team members as well as senior management to develop capabilities to cope with project manager departures, swift learning, and flexible role structures. Weick and Sutcliff suggest that high reliability organizations would be capable of helping people bounce back from unexpected events after they begin to occur quicker.

Managing the Unexpected

How is the project affected after the fact, is this a project risk that has been overlooked as an increasingly common project occurrence? What transitions take place when a project leader leaves mid-project, what mechanisms does a company have in place to address this change in leadership?

The developing model outlined in this paper suggests a number of key contributing factors that might lead to unexpected changes in project leadership. The questions in the preceding paragraph suggest the complexity of this situation. These questions have been addressed by several researchers (Conner, 1993; Harrington, Conner, & Horney 2000; Pullen 1993; Weick & Sutcliff, 2001) and provide interesting insight into managing under trying conditions.

The organization can anticipate and develop an awareness of the unexpected and act before problems become severe, watching for signs in the organization regarding resources and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Perhaps Pullen’s (1993) Strategic Shocks: Managing Discontinuous Change further supports an abrupt leadership change characterized by uncertainty, as a risk. His advice suggests developing a strategy for managing this discontinuous change, in our case, a project manager departure represents this discontinuous change. Following this abrupt leadership change, there is a period of uncertainty experienced by team members and a need for the organization to quickly consider the different perceptions that team members may experience under our different scenarios of project manager departure. What would you have to do to manage those perceptions/expectations?

Understanding the reasons project managers leave and the impact the departure has on projects is the first step in addressing issues for this project risk and in developing strategies for preventing the event and managing the transition. Part of assessing the situation involves looking at the affects the change has had on the project team and stakeholder population and developing strategies for managing the perceptions and expectations. This becomes evident in reviewing our developing model that indicates that varying contributors to project manager departures sets off a variety of impacts on projects, differing perceptions, and emotions from team members leading to the development of strategies for both the short-term and long-term.

So where does this leave the project? We have looked at contributing reasons for project manager departures, the impact on organizations and projects, and reactions by team members. This model indicates that the reactions and resulting impacts vary depending on the contributing reasons for the departure. So how can organizations manage this, how are some organizations managing this now?

Managing the Transition

Work by Kotter (1996, 2005), Roberto (2002), and Pullen (1993) supports the need for planning, strategy, and good management in managing organizational change. Roberto recognizes that leaders must cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and to make sense of this and to deal with it effectively, it involves redefining the situation in small steps. This has merit, given our situation, as project managers leave a project for a variety of reasons outlined in our model. The organization selecting the incoming project manager and the incoming project manager need to develop strategies that assess the situation into manageable pieces and have a variety of strategies to use. These strategies are dependent on the situation and reason for project manager departure in the first place. Developing a variety of strategies that simplifies this complex situation allows managers to make sense of their confusing situation.

The incoming manager can develop responses to this period of uncertainty experienced by team members and stakeholders. The strategy and subsequent plan will depend on the reason for the project manager’s departure and an assessment of how things are handled. Key aspects of this plan should focus on strong leadership, an emphasis on the team and or groups within the project, improving and sustaining improved internal communications, and providing counseling, should the situation warrant it (Pullen, 1993). These responses strongly support this model and an understanding that the unexpected departure of a project manager for reasons associated with business and human resource changes has the greatest impact on project team influences such as team member behaviors, questioning roles, and team unity.

Sudden changes in leadership can be costly, no matter how well they are handled and managed (Parker & Skitmore, 2005). In order to minimize the impact and avoid disaster, the focus needs to be on not only what the incoming project manager might do, but also the selection of the right replacement. We know that the project leader has a tremendous influence on team members and on the success of the project. The significance of a leadership change can lead to team members having to adjust to a new leadership style and approach. It is important that the leadership replacement is on the same page as senior management and the project sponsor and that communication of expectations is clear. Selecting the right replacement leader is further supported by the work of Harrington et al. (2003). Harrington et al’s work demonstrated that good leadership is essential for dealing with unexpected events and unanticipated risks and that the key leadership characteristics include team building, resilience in the face of change, successful negotiation, clear communication, and effective project management.

The new incoming project manager and the right project manager can contain the affects of this change when it does occur. Developing a plan that focuses on helping people bounce back from unexpected events is a small first step. Equipping project team members and senior management with capabilities and an awareness to cope with project manager departures can help ease the transition. As senior management has a role to play in this transition, we can now turn our attention to the organization’s role in managing project manager departures and minimizing the risk to the organization and projects in general.

Managing the Transition and Succession Planning

Reviewing the literature on succession planning provided insight into how organizations think about and deal with the risks associated with rapid turnover in leaders. Several researchers (Mellina, 2003; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) all support the need to identify backups for key management positions and create a pool of skilled project managers because changes occur more quickly now than in the past. The reality is if a key management person drops out of the picture unexpectedly, it puts the company at risk. Much of the work in this area recognizes the impact of losing a project leader mid-way through implementation of a high visibility assignment (i.e., change initiative or project) but does not address what needs to be done. While Sauer, Li, and Johnston (2001) and Longenecker and Scazzero’s (2003) work is specific to IT firms, they go a step further in identifying the need for development plans and processes in place to support project management leadership capability. Thus, once the organization has project managers with the skills, then the appropriate assignment of project managers to projects can be made.

I found that characteristics of replacement planning and succession planning programs tend to emphasize the ability to anticipate short-term, unexpected departures of senior managers, while succession management systems offer some depth and breadth in managing layers of senior leadership and their supply routes. And in some succession planning literature, I found that it is questionable whether succession planning is really of value when business requirements change so rapidly. For example, Parker and Skitmore (2005) suggest today’s rapidly changing business environment makes it impossible to predict who will still be around, what positions will exist in the future. This is important for organizations to recognize, as it may be a contributing factor to why firms are not engaging great effort to identify and develop project leaders/managers.

The literature (Mellina, 2003; Parker & Skitmore, 2005; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) strongly supports a dynamic, changing business environment and the need to develop key leadership talent in response to this environment; however it is Parker and Skitmore’s work that provides an understanding into the unexpected affect this has on team members and the potential risk this creates for the project.

Given this brief literature overview, it suggests that in dealing with the unexpected departure of a project leader, companies can develop succession plans and have a number of approaches to consider so there is a reservoir of talent and bench strength available to replace a project manager. An organization that moves in the direction of developing a pool of resources, where leaders are available who can take over at a moment’s notice, who can meet organizational and future needs, provides companies with the needed flexibility and confidence that they will have the leadership talent when needed. Succession plans that are living documents that take into account the unexpected also places an organization in a position to react quickly and with the assurance a project will be lead to a successful completion.

It is widely accepted that dynamic changes are taking place within business and project environments, affecting the stability of project manager tenure. Most of the literature is practical and does not clearly connect the impacts of project manager departures to the project, to team members, or to the organization. Some researchers have shown the need for developing transition plans, but evidently more research is required in this area.


Where do we go from here? The key challenge in addressing this project risk is to create and identify strategies, programs, and opportunities that build on how, when, and why leaders change unexpectedly and link these changes to strategies for transitioning team members in order to ensure continued project success. I suggest a number of short-term recommendations that both the organization and the individual project manager should adopt, offering a quick solution to the situation. I also provide some long-term recommendations.

Short-Term Recommendations

For the Incoming Project Manager:
  1. Develop a transition plan to help the project team deal with this unexpected change. Reassess where the project team has developed to and ensure there is alignment on common purpose and goals; re-establish roles, accountabilities and working relationships. Become familiar with teamwork plans and how things are done.
  2. Provide counseling to manage the uncertainty, stress and possibility of reduced productivity.
  3. Implement motivational fixes to address lagging motivation. Celebrate success, demonstrate appreciation for team members’ efforts, and refocus on the project goal.
For the Organization:
  1. Prepare the organization and its leaders to cope with constant change and transitions that require reorientation or re-creation. This involves developing the necessary skills in leaders and staff.
  2. Create practical strategies that managers can use to engage and retain talent, such as a compensation strategy focused on retention and creating a management style and corporate environment that is supportive.
  3. Challenge leaders with opportunities that keep them at the cutting edge of their profession and equip them with the skills to meet the organization’s current and future needs.
  4. Identify within the project plan, training replacements, shadowing opportunities, and rotations; ensure a resource plan has been created, recognizing key issues, compensation initiatives, challenging work, and legal contracts that specify commitment to the end of project.

Long-Term Recommendations

For the Organization:
  1. Develop a pool of backup resources for developing project manager capability.
  2. Examine the external and internal supply routes for developing project managers and for ensuring that resources are available for unexpected events.

There are a number of short-term and long-term recommendations listed in Table 1; however, for the purposes of this paper I have selected a number of key recommendations to emphasize immediate actions that can be taken. This paper recognizes the need for taking this research further and exploring how organizations develop and implement actions for coping with the unexpected departure of project managers.

Future Research Agenda

This review set out to discover what management literature there is to help organizations deal with the need to replace a project manager mid-project and I have found that more work needs to be done. Below are some ideas for future research on dealing with project management departures.

  1. Limited information could be found in the management literature. If frequent, unexpected changes to project leadership is a serious risk to the project, then a number of areas could be further explored:
    1. Acknowledge the risk once identified and assessed as having an impact on the project
    2. Incorporate into contingency plans.
    3. Identifying the risks of staff turnover – managing from both a planned perspective and being able to manage the unplanned staff turnover.
  2. The literature provides guidance on the after situation, after the unexpected turnover has occurred, rather than the before situation, when the event has been recognized. This is a gap that needs to be explored.
  3. What kind of change management tactics do organizations employ to facilitate the transition from project manager to incoming project manager?
  4. What methods should companies utilize to support leaders during this transition?
  5. How do companies retain key project leaders during high periods of change?

We know that the marketplace is more volatile, with a higher degree of uncertainty, and that turnover of key executives and leaders is rapidly increasing. These recommendations assist organizations and project practitioners in understanding the impact felt by organizations and teams when project leaders depart unexpectedly.


About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.



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Leadership Conversations: Insights into Organizational Change

Organizational change is a constant factor in the business world and plays a significant role for organizational leadership. On a daily basis, organizations are challenged to improve their business performance and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or as a way to increase business effectiveness. Change is increasingly becoming an important part of what leaders do, and communication and conversations are essential to both leadership and organizational change (Marshak, 2002). Not only have change initiatives been on the rise, but the importance of managing individuals through change has been gaining importance (Applebaum, Berke, Taylor, & Vazquez, 2008).

Public and private sector organizations are rethinking their mission, values, and operations against a new 21st century environment (Cinite, Duxbury, & Higgins, 2009). They are looking for opportunities to restructure and transform themselves to take advantage of the opportunities of a globally connected world in which people, driven by values and equipped with knowledge (Mengis & Eppler, 2008), will collaborate and innovate. Leadership conversations will play a pivotal role in making this happen.

In this paper, I address how leadership conversations influence organizational behaviour and shape organizational members’ mindsets. The paper is a summary, based on my own research (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) and attention is focused on how leaders create and sustain conversations during times of unprecedented change. The reader will see how leaders gain a greater appreciation of how closely their conversational behaviors are intertwined with the creation and leadership of change, business effectiveness, and performance.

What are Leadership Conversations?

To effectively navigate and influence the change agenda (Ford & Ford, 1995; 2008), leaders need to be proactively engaged in focusing, shaping, and influencing an organization’s communication through the spoken aspects of conversations (Scott, 2004). Because conversations are a highly flexible, interactive, and iterative form of communication, employees can ask clarifying questions, deepen certain aspects, and explore the larger context of a specific issue. Compared with written communication formats, people create shared experiences through face-to-face conversations. They use these conversations to build trust and strengthen relationships (Mengis & Eppler, 2008) and to influence successful organizational change by relying on different types of conversations (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995).

In the context of this paper and for our discussion, leadership conversations are the verbal interactions between senior leaders and their direct reports. And, because of this definition, the terms communication and conversations are one and the same. The paper will also advocate that the experiences of senior leaders (how senior leaders view their conversations) lead to a deeper understanding of how senior leaders effectively use their conversations to provide context and vision, meaning and purpose, and to influence and shape the change process.

Why are Leadership Conversations so Important?

Based on the conceptual work of Ford and Ford (1995; 2008), change conversations, as a communication vehicle, should be thought of as more than producing intentional organizational change. Change conversations can be used as an instrument in managing the process of change and leaders can persuade and influence others to accept new ideas, to change, to follow, and to take action. Within the structure of an organization, leaders at various levels seek to persuade and influence others (Daft, 2005; Raes, Glunk, Heijltjes, & Roe, 2007). A critical role for leaders today is to influence all levels of leaders and staff within an organization. This ability to influence and persuade results in success for the leader and contributes towards the effectiveness of the organization’s change effort.

Communication becomes extremely important to the essence of leadership effectiveness. A leader’s conversations can positively impact and facilitate the achievement of his or her work-related goals, as well as the achievements of others. Effective communication can produce higher levels of organizational affiliation (O’Neill & Jabri, 2007), improve the dynamics within the organization (Pearce, 2008), and create an open and engaged community within the organization. From this perspective, communication serves as the catalyst for change. The work of the leader in causing successful change in an organization is the work of deliberate and appropriate application of language. The leader’s ability to communicate is key in enabling the organization to make changes appropriately, effectively, and efficiently. Kotter’s (1990; 1996) work on communication continues to emphasize that leaders can inhibit or enable change to occur proactively or reactively, dependent upon the manner and tone of the message.

Conversations are Much More Than Communication

Historically, communication has been seen as a part of the change process, a tool with which to communicate what is going to change, how it is going to change, and who it is going to impact, either positively or negatively (Johansson & Heide, 2008). When conversation has been used as a tool within the change process, it typically is used to prepare people, increase understanding of the change, and sustain change. It has also been used to gather feedback on the change and enable behavioural and attitudinal changes. What comprises both the communication of change as well as the change itself, is the myriad of conversations that change managers and recipients have with each other for and about the change. It is in these conversations that vision, possibility, and opportunity are created, people are engaged and mobilized, and problems or breakdowns are resolved.

That communication plays an important role in change is not a new idea. Numerous writers have stressed the importance of leadership communication (Kotter, 1996; Lewis & Seibold, 1996), even to the point of suggesting that change may be seen as a communication problem that can be resolved by having people understand the change and the role they play in its implementation. In this context, communication is understood as a tool for announcing, explaining, and making a case for change as part of preparing people for its positive and negative effects (Svennevig, 2008). As Ford and Ford (1995) have argued, and others have shown (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995), successful change is a product of using different types of conversations at different times. Leaders may not realize they have a conversational pattern or that altering it can have significant implications for change.

Researchers throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (Daft, 2005; Kotter, 1990; Lewis & Seibold, 1996; Raes, Glunk, Heijltjes, & Roe, 2007) outlined the importance of the leadership and communication connection as a process of persuasion by which one induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and followers. This notion was further supported as one of the critical aspects of leadership—the ability to influence others—particularly through communication and conversations. However, today’s work environment is more diverse, more complex, and characterized by constant change. As a result, leaders face different and more difficult challenges when influencing followers.

Study Reveals Insights

In my study of transformational change leadership within a large energy company (Cowan Sahadath, 2010), leaders’ change conversations were categorized into five progressive types of leadership conversations: (1) strategically intentional; (2) catalyst for change; (3) mindful; (4) build shared commitment; and (5) guide the change. I found that transformational outcomes could be achieved by leaders through understanding audience perspectives and when leaders adjusted their conversations to enable more shared meaning, context, and understanding. This knowledge is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business.

Senior leaders (often referred to as the executive, senior leadership, or senior management) are generally the team of individuals at the highest level of organizational management, reporting to the CEO, who have the day-to-day responsibilities of managing and leading a corporation. In my work, I explored the verbal interactions between senior leaders (i.e., the participant group in my study) and their direct reports (the next level of management often referred to as middle managers).

This qualitative study investigated the variations in the way senior leaders experience their conversations during times of organizational change. It was an approach that uncovered how senior leaders experience, understand, and ascribe meaning to a specific situation or phenomenon. Based on key insights from my study, I will describe how leaders viewed their conversations and the direct contribution those conversations had on supporting changes and cultivating new opportunities for the organization.

Study Reveals Business Value

Leaders within an organization have various intentions and reasons to communicate: to provide information, to implement a change, to influence and motivate employees to perform better, to make decisions, to reward and recognize, to resolve conflict, and to coach and counsel. Knowing their conversations are instrumental in influencing the relationships and behaviors of their managers provides insight into:

  1. The role of conversation as a critical mechanism for planning communication implementations during change.
  2. The role conversation plays in affecting the outcome of an organizational change initiative as essential to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business.
  3. The extent to which change conversations can help to decrease anxiety, increase motivation, and support the adoption of the behaviours or activities needed to achieve the desired outcome.

Additionally, my study provided an opportunity for senior leaders to:

  • Voice what they attribute to the value of their leadership conversations in moving the organization toward or away from its business goals.
  • Gain an appreciation of how their conversations profoundly change relationships.
  • Express and focus on what is important to them as leaders orchestrating change.

Implications for Practice

The practical implications of this research for future improvements in leadership conversations, organizational change, and change leadership are many. The following table summarizes the opportunities for leaders and change management professionals to reflect on and apply practical approaches to help assess individual business situations.

Leadership Conversations Leadership Practical Applications
Senior leaders perceived leadership conversations:

Five Categories

– Leadership conversations are strategically intentional

– Leadership conversations are catalysts for change

– Leadership conversations are mindful and purposeful

– Leadership conversations build shared commitment

– Leadership conversations guide the change

Building Leadership Capability:

Leaders/Change Leaders

– Leadership conversations construct a new organizational understanding of organizational change goals

– Advancement in development of leadership development and organizational change strategies

– Creating space for conversation

– Organizational change management professional advances

Types of Leadership Conversations To help leaders assess their conversational pattern and to leverage conversation as their primary method of communication during organizational change, I developed a series of conversation worksheets (excerpt from Cowan Sahadath, Creating Conversations for Change, unpublished) designed to support, facilitate, and reach a deeper level of understanding around the types of conversations held during organizational change. A sample of questions from the worksheets is included below with each insight from my research. These questions were created based on my research conclusions. Reviewing these questions may lead to new ideas about what you might consider doing differently to get value from the change conversations you lead.

Strategically Intentional Many researchers have suggested that change is produced in and through conversations and discourse (e.g., Barrett et al., 1995; Ford, 1999; Heracleous & Barrett, 2001; Marshak, 2002), and the most influential conversations may be those that occur at the level of everyday conversation (Barrett et al., 1995). These interactions are the primary mechanism available to managers for affecting change. Leaders in my study described their understanding of conversations as purposeful efforts, where talk is about determining how people think about and respond to organizational changes.

Leaders articulated that their conversations need to be carefully crafted, structured, and linked to business objectives to influence the change needed. Whether focusing on leadership conversations as well-planned and structured, or executed purposively to create understanding and influence behavior, this category focused on preparing people for change, and gathering feedback on the change in order to enable behavioural and attitudinal changes. The following questions will help planning those conversations:

  1. Have you considered whether you have all the information needed for this conversation?
  2. Do you understand what values are reflected in your own position?
  3. Do your managers share your understanding of the change?
  4. How do you communicate and have those change conversations with your managers?

Catalyst for Change Conversations about change create opportunities for vision and possibility, people engagement and mobilization, problem discovery, and resolution. The challenges facing leaders go beyond determining what needs to be done differently. Conner (1993) stated that effective leaders are capable of reframing the thinking of those whom they lead, enabling them to see that significant changes are not only essential, but also achievable. Leaders must also address how to execute these decisions in a manner that has the greatest possibility for success. If organizations change when people begin to talk and think differently (Barrett et al., 1995), then leaders need to focus on shaping discourse and providing opportunities for dialogue. If change is truly about discourse, then the most powerful intervention depends on the everyday conversation that leaders initiate.

Leadership conversations, as a communication vehicle, are significant in order to begin a process of creating broader opportunities for organizational understanding. The following questions may facilitate delivering conversations to create opportunities for a new mind-set, and act as a framework for thinking about and leading complex change:

  1. How have you changed the culture so that managers are not focused on status quo?
  2. Are you spending more or less time working together with your managers?
  3. How have you become more adaptive? Who do you involve? How do you involve your managers?

Mindful Awareness Using conversation as an effective communication method requires leaders to use their conversations purposely. This occurs when leaders openly discuss their awareness of what they are saying and the impact of their words. Further, conversations are purposeful and framed, and go where they need to go, based on the variety of audience perspectives and interests. To help leaders use conversation in this manner, the following questions are intended to expand one’s comfort zone, to create circumstances for developing mindfulness, and for acting mindfully:

  1. Has your relationship with managers changed over the past two years?
  2. Do you interact differently with your managers than you had two or three years ago?
  3. What do you do differently today as a leader that you didn’t do five or ten years ago?

Building Shared Commitment The results of this study suggest a clear shift towards skills that are tied to relationships and managing change, seeking to involve other people in the process, building important relationships, and working across boundaries to collaborate effectively. The development of these skills is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business. To create an environment that facilitates the new skill sets for leaders, an organization must change its systems and the way it operates to allow people to collaborate and work more interdependently. In this study, leaders approached their conversations authentically, and managed to build understandings around the common vision for the organization.

The following questions may provide an opportunity to build understanding and commitment to current goals, future possibilities, develop a genuine relationship with teams, and connect accountability through this dialogue:

  1. Are you emphasizing the need to change the culture and to listen to and engage with your people because you think engaged employees will be more productive?
  2. As a leader, how do you affect what people in all aspects of your business do, how do they get the message?
  3. Culture change is something that companies talk about but often don’t actually achieve. How are you thinking about changing the culture?

Guiding the Change My study revealed that leadership conversations guide an organization in achieving something significantly or fundamentally different from what they have done before. When leaders share the values and vision with their teams, and when everyone collectively understands the key drivers and the strategies that are being employed to address them, everyone can be collectively committed to the major strategic efforts of the organization. In this context, communication is understood as a tool for announcing, explaining, and making a case for change as part of preparing people for its positive and negative effects. The study found that leaders do realize they have a conversational pattern and that altering it can have significant implications for change. Questions to consider:

  1. What are some of the strategies you use to discuss business priorities and values?
  2. In what ways do your goals reflect the business goals?
  3. What have you done over the past year to keep your managers/employees informed about how the business is doing?

Building Leadership Capability

Researchers and practitioners have come to understand leaders, leadership, and leadership development in many ways. The implication that future leadership development can provide a more informed understanding of leadership as a practice, involves new skills in collaboration, teamwork, and innovation required to achieving business objectives and results.

I indicated previously that the results of this study suggest a clear shift toward skills that are tied to relationships and managing change, seeking to involve other people in the process, building important relationships, and working across boundaries to collaborate effectively. Skill development in this area is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their industries. To create an environment that supports the development of new skill sets for leaders, an organization must change its systems and the way it operates to allow people to collaborate and work more interdependently.

Opportunities for leadership development may involve:

  • Challenging assignments that take leaders out of their technical expertise and into a business that involves a broader range of people across the organization.
  • Connecting less experienced leaders with those who already practice participatory management and provide aspiring leaders experiences to actively learn on a day-to-day basis.

Creating Space for Conversations

The results of my research suggest that there may be more conducive approaches to helping to develop organizational opportunities that enable moving from conversation to conversation, and knowing when to create opportunities for spaces for conversations. To clarify, creating space occurs when a leader supports an environment that allows for comfortable, profound conversations, as a way of building opportunities for others. A responsibility for today’s leaders is to create space for their managers, a space where distinct businesses and people in the organization come together and have meaningful conversation; a space in which people can generate new and different ideas. Questions leaders might ask to explore the overall change that is occurring in the organization:

  1. Are the types of conversations you have with your managers during times of organizational change building a common understanding of the facts about the change?
  2. What role does your communication efforts play in engaging your managers in key change initiatives?
  3. In leading an organization through change, what questions do you think are important to ask?

Change for Change Management Professionals

The main contribution of my research for practitioner purposes is in highlighting the need to transform the way change management professionals approach communication efforts for senior leaders. There are new avenues to explore for leadership development and for effective organizational change management. It seems that leaders are aware that conversations are a way of intervening strategically. Findings indicate that there was unexpected discovery among my participants that suggests opportunities for executive leadership development (i.e., increasing the ways that a leader employs leadership conversations) and understanding of the multiple ways that effective leaders make meaning of leadership conversations. To be able to adopt the best change implementation strategy, leaders and change agents need to understand the complexity of forces involved when a large-scale change is implemented and know the multiple ways leaders make meaning of leadership conversations to have the greatest impact.

The more organizational change management professionals understand about the influence of leadership conversations on an organization and its leadership, the more they can contribute to the organization’s success.

Changing the Conversation

A deeper and broader understanding of how senior leaders experience and interpret their leadership conversations is a significant contribution to understanding the complex organizational change in the business world today and plays a significant role for organizational leadership. On a daily basis, organizations are challenged to improve their business performance, and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or to increase business effectiveness. Change is increasingly becoming an important part of what leaders do, and communication and conversations are essential to both leadership and organizational change success.


About the Author


Kathy Cowan Sahadath  is a Program Manager at Hydro One Networks Inc. in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations in the company. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of the company, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve the company’s overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara, California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer and board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.


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An Innovative Approach to Fostering a Culture of Service Excellence in the City of Ottawa

This case study describes how a team of organizational development (OD) and human resource (HR) specialists worked as partners with the City of Ottawa’s operational and shared services leaders to change the way all City employees provide service excellence. Beverley Patwell (an external OD consultant), Donna Gray (Director, ServiceOttawa Department, City of Ottawa), and Steve Kanellakos (Deputy City Manager of City Operations, City of Ottawa) led the change team. The approach taken to successfully develop and implement a large-scale, systems-wide learning and change strategy that helped to foster a culture of service excellence throughout all municipal services and operations in the City of Ottawa is outlined in this article.

The authors contend that our case study is relevant to OD, HR professionals, leaders, and managers for several reasons. First and foremost, it demonstrates how a large-scale organizational culture shift can be successfully implemented, given that more than 70% of change initiatives fail (Maurer, 2010). The change team achieved results quickly, accomplishing in three years what many organizations take five or ten years to complete. OD practitioners may develop new insights on how to successfully partner with external resources and internal business partners and leaders to successfully lead, manage, and implement a major culture change. The lessons learned throughout the process may be applied to any organization that needs to be innovative in its approach to learning and development, as well as leading change.

The case study largely covers the period from 2007 to December 2010, although ongoing initiatives have continued since then.

Download PDF: An Innovative Approach to Fostering a Culture of Service Excellence in the City of Ottawa

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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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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Change and the Common Company

Every organization is DOING change management and many even have a dedicated change team. In the past 20 years, the practitioners and researchers in the field have seen a shift from hiring change management consultants to developing change management teams within an organization. Based on my experience, I provide my insights on the change process and suggest a practical approach to managing change in an organization.

When I first began working in this field, large multi-million dollar companies hired ‘experts’ in change management. We were bright, young and energetic consultants who worked not unlike the days of Frederick Taylor’s factory workers—working on small, manageable chunks of the overall change. Few of us were experienced enough to see the whole change process as a complex system. Many of us were educated in the theory of change, but few had actually experienced any organizational change. Now, many organizations have dedicated teams or individuals, usually working out of the HR shop, to assist in whatever changes the organization is undertaking. Most of these people are actually experts in the organization, who have received some level of formal training or education in change management. Yet, for large scale changes, these same organizations commonly call on outside experts to coordinate change efforts. Hopefully these outside experts work with their internal colleagues to create a collaborative change solution. I have found that quite often, the internal consultants have a decent approach, framework, or methodology, but not the understanding of the nuances of the approach or the rationale behind the approach. I believe it is critical for change experts to share our knowledge and experience with our internal consulting colleagues, leaving them even more knowledgeable than they were—and dare I say it—maybe we can, in turn, learn a thing or two from them. One way facilitate this collaborative learning is to share an approach that one doesn’t necessitate a PhD to understand, and that can be adjusted to fit the organization, and the change. I’ll share one such model later in this article.

Unsuccessful major change initiatives fail because they do not achieve what they set out to do, not realizing the intended benefits of the change. This is true regardless of whether the organization is public or private sector, and regardless of the use of internal or external change experts. One of the key reasons for the failed change is the lack of consistent, coherent, and compelling communication. We have likely all experienced the “grand announcement” type of communication. What is missing in many organizations is communication that is truly two-way, where the receiver asks questions and confirms their understanding. What is missing is communication from the receiver’s frame of reference; what is missing is communication about: Why? Why now? What’s changing? What’s not changing? What will the future look like?

Over the past 20 years, practitioners and researchers in the field have developed a better change vocabulary, recognizing the difference between managing and leading, between change management and change leadership. Most people in the fields of business, change, and organization development recognize the terms “change champion” and “change agent.” Some of this group, however, may not be able to differentiate between transactional, transitional, and transformational change. Let’s clarify these terms; a common understanding of change language is critical. Much of the information that follows is synthesized from Ackerman Anderson and Anderson (2001). I recommend this as one resource for those interested in gaining a detailed understanding of the change process.

  • Transactional change represents the improvement of an existing skill or way of working that does not measure up to expected future needs. Transactional changes are improvements, within the box, of what is already known or practiced.
  • Transitional change is more complex, and occurs in response to the need for more significant shifts in employee behaviour. Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris (1987) were the first to suggest that Transitional changes needed to be, and could be, managed. Typically, transitional changes can be managed as projects with timelines and budgets, and without the need for deep personal change.
  • Transformational change is the least understood and most complex type of change, requiring a radical shift in organizational culture, individual behaviour, and individual mindset. The specific end-state in transformational change is largely uncertain at the beginning of the change and becomes more defined as the change process unfolds.
  • Change Leadership focuses on the big picture and creating excitement and followership. Change leaders, who are also known as sponsors, champions, etc., have the passion and persistence to rally the troops to see and embrace the change vision.
  • Change Management is the structured approach to shifting or transitioning people from a current state to a desired future state. Change managers/agents share the leaders’ passion for success, and are the ones to critically unpack the facets of the change, helping to plan and execute the detailed change process required to achieve the desired future. Change managers/agents quite often head up components of the change, working with their change colleagues to coordinate the various aspects of the change. Change managers sit on the change steering committee, headed by the change leader.

I would argue that organizations seeking to implement a transformational change require both a robust change leadership coaching approach and a coherent, coordinated, and feasible change strategy.

A good change strategy is both a document and an action. The development of the change strategy begins to raise awareness and interest in the change. The key components of a change strategy include the following:

  • Stakeholder map
  • Impact assessment
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Training plan (by stakeholder group)
  • Communications plan (by stakeholder group), and
  • An evaluation and monitoring plan

Typically, change practitioners/experts create the change strategy in line with the defined phases of the change. One change approach, among many, is based on the work of Richard Beckhard (1987) which I have modified to Why x What x How>R. This is a multiplicative formula, since experience has shown that focusing our efforts on just why we need to change, or just what is changing, or just how we will change, does not create enough momentum to move those involved in the change through the inevitable dips in energy and productivity and overcome resistance (R). Another part of the change formula that the Queen’s IRC has developed is to identify the tasks for change leaders in preparing and planning the WHY, WHAT, and HOW of the change and the tasks for the change managers in implementing the WHY, WHAT, and HOW of making the change a new reality.

The final piece to the change process is change leadership coaching for change leaders and change managers. I have worked with many executives who really feel overwhelmed by the need to lead the change, manage the change, manage the day-to-day operations, manage their people, lead the organization, be the face of the change and the organization, and deal with the sense of loss that all change entails. While receiving coaching, these executives understand their strengths and weaknesses in a safe and confidential environment while continuing to lead their people and their organization.

In summary, successful change demands a coherent, coordinated, and feasible approach, supported change leaders and managers, clear, compelling and coordinated communication of the why, what and how of the change, and a little help from a coach.


Ackerman Anderson, L. S., & Anderson, D. (2001). The change leader’s roadmap: How to navigate your organization’s transformation (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Beckhard, R., & Harris, R. (1987). Organizational transitions. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

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