Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

The Precarious Process of Leading Change

by Katherine Tyler Scott


As the rate of COVID vaccination increases globally, and as restrictions put in place to lower the risk of infection are gradually lifted, organizations will be faced with how they will adapt. Those responsible for leading what are imminent changes in their institutions are facing a huge challenge – the precarious nature of the change process.

Change is constant and complex but the pace and degree of it makes managing it precarious. Seventy percent of change efforts fail.

This disturbing statistic persists, despite decades of research and thousands of articles and books written about change.  John Kotter’s (1995) article, “Leading Change : Why Transformation Efforts Fail” identified some of the challenges of leading change successfully, and why it continues to be a quandary to leaders no matter their profession and sector.

A primary reason, according to William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (1991) is that leaders don’t distinguish between the emotions and psychological needs in each phase of change, and give little or no thought to endings or how to manage their impact on people.

There is a natural inclination of leaders to be focused on the future, which is viewed as an asset in strategic planning. Being unaware of the difficulty puts them at risk of forgetting that in any change effort people have to be helped “to let go” of the familiar, and the comfort of the past and present, before they can move into the uncertainty of the unknown. Convincing people to “leave home” is a precarious part of the change process unless leaders understand how change happens and are prepared to manage the emotional and behavioral responses it evokes.

Scholars and practitioners still rely on the groundbreaking research of social psychologist and pioneer of change management, group dynamics, and organizational development Kurt Lewin to describe what happens when planned change is introduced into an organization. Knowledge of Lewin’s work has been expanded upon and deepened over the decades, and the basic construct of the three phases of change remains — an ending, the gap, and a new beginning.

The ending is a time when most people are in denial and resistance. They may not trust that the change will happen, they may disagree with the direction, or they may just want to avoid discomfort. The most frequent responses from leaders to denial and resistance are to cheerlead the change, overwhelm people with data, or resort to coercion. Such strategies contribute to resistance and regression.  A lack of understanding of what people are feeling means the change is likely to be unstainable.

 The Gap is the second phase of the change process, when half of the people have accepted that the change is going to happen, some are already onboard with the vision, and some are still resisting. There is heightened anxiety and a mix of other emotions such as fear and excitement, anger and grief, confusion and certainty. The gap is a phase in which people are searching for certainty and direction, seeking solid ground and a sense of stability. This is the phase in which the task of letting go is very important and if not managed well escalates confusion and regression. There is a smaller number of people in denial and resistance and the same number as those in the new beginning.

It is in this in-between time that pressure rises on the leader to “solve the problem” and get people to the new beginning. Immediate solutions are sought without clarity about the problem, and alleviation of distress feels more urgent than true engagement in problem-solving. This phase can be overwhelming. The work of the leader must be to create some order in what feels like chaos; to ground people in the vision, direction, and core values; and to create and hold the space in which members can manage the system’s emotionality and engage in the real work.  

The third phase is when most of the people have accepted the change and have committed to its implementation. Still, though smaller in number, there are those that remain in denial and resistance and the emotional caldron of the Gap.  

Convincing people to “leave home” is a precarious part of the change process unless leaders understand how change happens and are prepared to manage the emotional and behavioral responses it evokes.

When change is introduced in a system, leaders have already moved — emotionally and behaviorally — through the first two phases and will occupy the opposite phase of where most followers are in the process. The need at this point is for a leader to have the insight, awareness, patience, and empathy necessary to successfully help others navigate through the change process.

In my experience of working with communities and organizations in the business, philanthropic, and education sectors, I have learned that leaders who understand and operate from within this construct of change fare much better than those who do not. It is a simple, yet profound way to help leaders understand and access the ways to navigate the complex precarious nature of change.

The challenge of communicating the future direction of an organization shifts in the new beginning to integrating the change into the organization’s operations and culture. There will still be a few in denial and resistance, and some are still in the gap. The two biggest mistakes a leader of change can make at this point are to assume that the work of managing change is complete — the work has just begun because aligning the structure, practices, and people with the vision is the real work and is essential to successful, sustainable change. The other misstep is to either be dismissive of the people in denial, resistance, and confusion or to focus too much on them. It’s important to not reinforce these behaviors and make them a norm by giving them too much attention; but it is unwise to completely ignore them. If the leader has done everything necessary to enable and support the person in the change and they remain stuck, then a decision will need to be made about whether they can remain without undermining or sabotaging progress.

Most of the problems leaders have are adaptive; yet most of the training provided continues to be technical. Leading change is an adaptive challenge not a technical one. The disconnect between the type of problem and the skill needed is the point at which the change process quickly veers toward failure.

Successful change outcomes require knowledge of the change process, applied adaptive skills, and a leader’s internal capacity to skillfully address and manage the psychological and emotional issues of him or herself and of others. This is an indicator of high emotional intelligence as well as of being a self-differentiated leader.

Positioning and guiding an organization to responsibly respond to change demands an integrated approach to self-development that includes both technical and adaptive skills and inner and outer work. It is the leader’s self awareness and insight that enables self-management and the ability to remain disentangled from the emotionality of the system so that they can be a non-anxious presence in the midst of turmoil. Inner work enables leaders to be honest, real, authentic, and to lead others through a change process that can lead to a successful outcome.

The wise words of French philosopher, and Jesuit priest Pierre de Teilhard de Chardin’s are words I carry with me to keep me mindful of what leaders need to be reminded of :

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time

Impatience fuels the tendency to rush through or skip over the phases of change, both of which lead to failure.

Tackling change without knowledge and understanding of the change process leads to fragmentation, failure, and the regression progress — behavior that will keep the 70% failure rate fixed.

The field of leadership is beginning to see the value of leaders who are not only intellectually competent and technically skilled but also emotionally equipped to deal with levels of intense emotionality in systems that the process of change evokes. We must prepare leaders to be well-differentiated and able to navigate these emotional processes embedded in the change process if we want to reduce, if not eliminate, the failure rate of change efforts. This is especially important right now as communities and organizations begin to emerge from a very difficult and emotional time of crisis and turn their gaze toward the future and new beginnings.

References & Other Sources

Bridges, William. (1991). Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change. Perseus Books

Friedman, Edwin H. (2007). A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Seabury Books.

Kotter, John. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1995. https://hbr.org/1995/05/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail-2

Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Principal of Ki ThoughtBridge, LLC, a company that is known for its integrated approach to the development of individual and organizational leadership that increases adaptive capacity, efficacy and resilience. Previously, Katherine developed and directed the Lilly Endowment Leadership Education Program and was President and CEO of Trustee Leadership Development, a National Leadership Development Center.  Katherine has worked in public and private health facilities as a psychotherapist and supervisor of residents in psychiatry, psychology interns, and graduate social work students and has consulted with and provided training to executive leaders in various healthcare facilities. She has written extensively on integrated adaptive leadership, trusteeship, organizational development, and change management. Katherine is a current board member of Women4Change and she previously chaired the board of the International Leadership Association. She is a founding member of the Indianapolis chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women.

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