Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Dealing With the Challenges of Change

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The management of change can be personally frightening for many leaders. They fear criticism and personal attacks from associates and superiors. Most importantly, they dread the potential failure associated with change and the possible impact of such failure on their career.

Most organizations make it easier to say “no” to a project that is associated with change than to approve one. When they reject a project, managers protect themselves from having to justify tough decisions and facing the criticism that comes with a failing project. Moreover, when approving a project, many managers discover they are forced to work harder, take more risks and suffer more criticism than they are prepared to deal with. And if they do fail, they often discover that the less innovative and more risk-averse associates are rewarded by the organization.

This is important for leaders to understand because if the above scenario is a reality in their organization, it places a damper on their ability to innovate in the face of change. However, innovative leaders can take solace in the fact that much of the undue criticism heaped upon them is often based on misdirected frustrations; in fact, individuals are often unhappy with what is already happening in their organization, but have a hard time grasping the need to evolve to maintain or renew success. Leaders must come up with ways to overcome this internal inertia as part of their responsibility to manage change in their organization.

Organizations can and will change—it is a matter of choice. Leaders faced with the responsibility of managing change in their organization must overcome the specific challenges described below if they want to be successful.

Related: Leaders Should Set a Clear and Decisive Tone at the Top

Fear of Failure

Fear on all levels is the biggest challenge for leaders. There may be several ways for leaders to use early successes and ideas that can be tested and refined, and then leverage them into more substantial achievements. However, they are often faced with senior management’s fear of failure and their own fear of being criticized by investors, customers and even the competition. Often leaders can hesitate to enact change simply because it might affect just a few customers, even if that same change can increase the satisfaction of the majority of their clients.

Dealing with Committees

Leaders should understand that committees in most organizations are one of the primary barriers to change. While small committees can be effective, large groups can be impossible to deal with. If fact, most organizations make it easy for a single committee member to say “no” and veto a new idea or concept—thus requiring a unanimous “yes” for anything to move forward. Consequently, the larger the committee, the longer it will take a leader to convince each member that a new concept or idea is worthwhile.

Related: Anticipating and Handling Employee Fears of Change

Handling Critics

For most critics, adopting a new idea, concept or strategy means turning away from the focus that is currently making the organization successful. Most of these critics see change not as an evolution of ideas and concepts that makes the organization better, faster and more competitive, but as a zero-sum game where one side wins at the expense of the other. The arguments they espouse are often formed by their personal fear of failure.

Leaders can effectually deal with such critics by setting ground rules for criticism, including:

  1. Criticize an idea based on how well it meets its objectives. If the critics don’t care for the objectives, then the objectives must be discussed as a separate matter.
  2. Weigh the idea against the status quo, being sure to look at present failures and problems.
  3. If a critic doesn’t like an idea, he or she must come up with an alternative. A lack of a solution is not an acceptable solution.
  4. Criticism for criticism’s sake should not be tolerated, nor should personal attacks.

Related: Do Institutionalized Management Practices Create Formidable Obstacles to Change?

Redefine Change and Failure

One of the biggest aspects of managing change is in redefining the rules. What was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable in the current climate of change. Therefore, leaders must redefine failure as it pertains to the organization. The fear of failure results in inertia as organizations struggle to maintain the status quo. And, ironically, maintaining the status quo in the face of change will always result in failure. As previously stated, a lack of a solution is not an acceptable solution.

Additionally, leaders must redefine change within the organization. They must make it clear that continuous change is the normal state of affairs. Accordingly, it must be redefined as something that is an expected part of every normal job, not something that is a cause for panic and anxiety. If individuals accept this reformulation, then risk will automatically be redefined; when change is a normal part one’s job, the risks associated with change are thus minimized. This shift in perspective helps reduce personal levels of stress and anxiety and makes the responsibility of managing change easier as leaders help their organization evolve through small, incremental steps.

Excerpt: Impact of Change on Individuals: Pinpoint Leadership Skill Development Training Series(Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011) $ 16.95 USD

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2012 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

Written by Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D.

September 11, 2012 at 11:05 am

10 Responses

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  1. […] Dealing With the Challenges of Change. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

    • Hi Tim – Your article is very well written and I would like to add some comments if I may?

      I agree that leaders may fear for their career but should they be in a leadership role if they do?

      I mean – doesn’t everyone fear for their career on some level (unless they belong to an organization like Google that regularly encourages people to try & fail)?

      If, for instance, a middle manager is working on his/her payroll for the period & they make a mistake, do they not inwardly worry that the mistake may have an impact on their career (especially if this is a repeated mistake)?

      Fear of failure (rightly or wrongly) is a common part of everyone’s life, not just executive leaders. So let’s stop feeling sorry for them & give them some leadership tools to be able to handle the responsibility. These people earn the big bucks & LEADERSHIP SKILLS CAN BE TAUGHT!

      In the same way change is a common part of everyone’s life (especially their work life).

      If I am that same middle manager & I have a project I’m driving, do I not I still have the same list of resources to lead/manage as the high powered executive (Perhaps fewer of them but it’s still a change initiative to drive, isn’t it)?

      And yet if that middle manager started a project without a “business case” chances are that project would probably not even be approved! And yet we encourage “innovative executives” (there is an overused phrase) to lead massive change within our organizations, all of the time, & without any similar plan!

      I’m a big fan of Kotter & I believe & agree with him when he says that two of the biggest contributing factors to change failure are Complacency & Arrogance. Both of these are a result of the business’s past record & more than likely a result of their past successes.

      Dealing with committees is hard – No doubt – But with a solid change strategy in place these stakeholders can be analyzed for their probability to resist, so that a resulting strategy can be put in place to negotiate the obstacle. It takes time to do this but it is the proper step.

      Part of the current problem is because good change management practices are a “black art” to most company steering teams (especially in the west). It’s the same as Information Technology was 20 years ago. If you did not have a good IT Director on hand that knew their stuff, you’d be a lucky executive if you had not made some infrastructure mistakes.


      Resistance to change is a given in any change project, & though we can list the probably individual reasons depending on the group, the bottom line is that it often comes down to a basic human need. More often than not it is for the same reason cited at the beginning of your article. Each person fears that this change may result in no job at all for them!

      With the right leadership skills such fear of failure goes away (because the environment is more forgiving – even for the executive), people are allowed to learn from mistakes, they are generally more secure in the knowledge that the company does not have it in for them, & any subsequent change becomes easier.

      We have spent decades developing managers & not leaders within our industrial, service, & now knowledge based institutions. We need to start equipping leaders with “leadership skills”.

      Simply put – Leadership & Change are the same thing.

      They are both about “getting things done with people”. I don’t know of a single example (from a front-line- leader to high-powered-executive) for whom this is not true.

      To me it has always been so (but I was taught management late & leadership early).

      Thanks for providing opportunity for dialog! Please feel free to do the same at http://www.leadersmiths.com.

      David Smith

      David E Smith

      September 12, 2012 at 12:08 pm

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