Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

December 1999
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How People React to Change, and The Change Strategy

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

To successfully lead organizational change, leaders must understand how people react to change. They must also formulate an appropriate change strategy. This Letter will deal with both these issues.

How People React to Change:

People react to major organizational change in a manner similar to how they react to sudden traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, or a natural disaster that destroys one’s home. The reaction pattern has four stages:

1. Denial. The initial reaction is to deny that change will be necessary. “This isn’t happening” or “It’s just a temporary setback.”

2. Anger. The next stage is to get angry and look for someone to blame. At the same time, people stubbornly resist giving up accustomed ways of doing things.

3. Mourning. In this stage, people stop denying that change is inevitable, acknowledge what has been lost, and mourn it.

4. Adaptation. The final stage is to accept the need to change and get on with life.

The duration and severity of each type of reaction can vary greatly, and some people get stuck in an intermediate stage. Leaders must understand these stages and learn to be patient and helpful. Many people need help to overcome denial, conquer their anger, mourn without becoming depressed, and have optimism about adjusting successfully.

How People Are Affected by Repeated, Traumatic Change:

People react in different ways to repeated, traumatic change. Many people are hurt by change. This leaves them less resilient and more vulnerable to damage by subsequent change. Others are “inoculated” by repeated changes, and become better prepared to change again without having such an intense or prolonged period of adjustment.

Christian leaders must know their people, pray for them and with them, and seek to lead change in a manner that is healthy and beneficial. Organizational change should not hurt the people it was intended to serve.

The Change Strategy

There are two ways to introduce change in an organization: change people or change roles. Leaders must understand these two dimensions of change.

1. Change people. This approach assumes that new attitudes or skills will cause behavior to change. Skills can be changed with training programs, and attitudes can be changed by persuasive appeals or by team building interventions. Prayer, of course, is the Christian leader’s most potent way to bring change in people’s hearts when that change is in line with God’s will. “Converts” become change agents themselves and transmit the vision to other people in the organization.

2. Change roles. This approach assumes that when new roles require people to act in a different way, they will change their attitudes to be consistent with their new behavior. Roles can be changed by redesigning jobs to include different activities and responsibilities, by reorganizing the workflow, by modifying authority relationships, and by changing the criteria and procedures for the evaluation of work.

Either approach can succeed or fail depending on how it is implemented as well as the circumstances. Often the best strategy will be to use them together in a mutually supportive way, making efforts to change attitudes and skills to support new roles. This will minimize resistance and give change the best chance of success.

Using Someone Else’s Change Strategy?

There are many generic change strategies for either attitude change or role change. In the business world, some examples include downsizing, delayering, self-managed teams, quality circles and incentive plans. Popular strategies come and go in every organizational context.

However, a common mistake is for a leader to implement one of these change strategies without a careful and prayerful diagnosis of the particular problems and opportunities facing his or her own organization. A single generic strategy is not likely to solve an organization’s problems by itself, and it may make them worse.

Before initiating major changes, leaders must be clear about the nature of the problem, or the opportunity, and the objectives of the intended change. Just as in the treatment of a physical illness, the first step is a careful diagnosis to determine what is wrong with the patient. The organizational diagnosis can be conducted by the top leadership team, by outside consultants, or by a team composed of representatives of the various key stakeholders in the organization. To succeed, the procedure must be submitted to the will and purposes of God, and it must be bathed in prayer. After the diagnosis is completed, an appropriate change strategy can then be prayerfully designed with complementary changes in roles and people.

The next Leadership Letter will begin to describe the actual mechanics of implementing change.

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