Leading Change Successfully

Professor Malcom Higgs
University of Southhampton School for Management

Clearly, one of the biggest challenges facing organizations today is implementing change effectively. However, it’s widely accepted that only 30% of changes are successful. We know that change implementation is one of the most important roles of leadership, so the combination of these two points suggests that we should question what we’ve learned about leadership in wrestling with the challenges of change.

A widely accepted mindset is based on two assumptions: that behavior and changes in behavior can be planned and that processes can be consistent and controlled. These assumptions point to a leader-centric approach. But research on change failure shows that little emphasis is placed on the importance of the change leaders’ role, while a major cause of change failure can be attributed to the failure of leaders.

Perhaps this is because typical leadership development builds leaders’ capability to solve problems – not on their ability to deal with ambiguity, paradoxes, and dilemmas. Yet these are exactly the things that are central to the process of change.

Change Leadership Behaviors

I recently collaborated in an international research study to explore the question, “What makes change work?” Thirty leaders in 30 organizations were asked to tell their stories about both successful and unsuccessful changes. After analyzing 70 such stories, we identified four leadership behavior types, which we then related to the relative success of the change initiatives.

The Attractor Type

  • Connects emotionally; embodies the future intent of the organization.
  • Sees reality; connects patterns to a wider movement to create a compelling story.
  • Sets the context of how things fit together, working the story into the organization
    decision “makes sense.”
  • Works beyond personal ambition for a higher purpose – the organization and community.
  • Adapts leadership skills to fit a specific purpose.

The Edge-and-Tension Type

  • “Tells it like it is” – describes reality with respect but without compromise.
  • Is constant in turbulent times; doesn’t hide from tough stuff; keeps people’s feet to the fire.
  • Calls out assumptions; creates discomfort by challenging paradigms and disrupting
    habitual ways of doing things.
  • Sets the bar high and keeps it there; stretches goals and limits.
  • Doesn’t compromise on talent; pays attention to getting and keeping top talent.

The Container Type

  • Sets boundaries and rules so people know expectations of the work as well as values and behaviors.
  • Is self-assured and takes a stand; shows confidence in challenging conditions.
  • Provides encouraging signals; creates ownership, trust, and confidence.
  • Makes it safe to say risky things and have “hard conversations” via empathy and high-quality dialogue skills.
  • Creates alignment at the top to ensure consistency and constancy of approach.

The Creates-Movement Type

  • Builds trust so the organization can go to new places and act differently.
  • Frees people to new possibilities by being vulnerable and open.
  • Understands what is happening in the moment; breaks established patterns to create movement
    in the “here and now.”
  • Powerfully inquires into systemic issues to enable deep change.
  • Creates time and space for transformational encounters.

Results of our study revealed that the combination of these practices explained around 50% of the variance in change success. We also found that traditional leader-centric behaviors (problem-solving, etc.) were associated with failed change attempts. Therefore, we should be training leaders to practice all these behaviors to succeed in leading change.

Much of what we “know” about effective leadership could actually be inhibiting our ability to make change happen. If our study results are supported by others, we need to learn how to develop leaders who can make change happen effectively. Perhaps it’s time to forget what we think we know about leadership and explore its nature in a new way. Of the many leaders we can look to as good examples, Gandhi comes closest to expressing how we now need to think: The most powerful legacy in life is to enable others, to let them be the best they can be.

The overall conclusion may be, “To make change happen successfully, lead less and change more.”

This study was led by Malcolm Higgs, professor at University of Southampton School of Management and Transcend Consulting. To learn more about this research and guidance on developing effective practices, see Sustaining Change: Leadership that Works by Deborah Rowland and Malcolm Higgs (Jossey Bass, 2008).