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Organizations Change When People In Them Change

  • Organizations Change When People In Them Change

Imagine six department heads sitting in a comfortable conference room discussing the launch of an important change initiative with the general manager. They’ve done their homework—informal interviews and formal needs assessments—they understand the problem and they’ve chosen an appropriate change initiative to solve it. They know it is the right solution, and thy are sure that employees will be on board as soon as it is announced. And no skimping on the announcement either. At the big, all-hands meeting, there were mouse pads, T-shirts, and coffee mugs all emblazoned with the logo of the change initiative. Every employee got three scoops of ice cream. The announcement left a clear sugar high, but a much less clear sense of direction. Within months, the initiative faded from people’s memory, but the problem that the company sought to solve is alive and well.

Nearly 15 years ago, after living through many change initiatives that started with “the big announcement” and ended with logo mugs available for sale at local thrift shops, I began to look more deeply into what it really takes to successfully deploy organizational change initiatives. The overarching lesson is that organizations change only when the people in them change, and there are two bshapiro blog quoteroad factors that influence people in organizations. The first factor is leveraging the knowledge and enthusiasm of employees who support the change initiative—making it possible for them to help their peers understand and take advantage of the change. The second, and equally important factor, is strong, supportive leadership—leaders whose decisions and actions provide the direction and tools that enable employees not only to apply the initiative, but also to engage their peers in using and improving it.  

It is hard to underestimate the significance of employees who have commitment to a change initiative. They understand how work is done in their environment and see the value that the initiative can bring. They are the most well-equipped to explain and advocate the initiative to their co-workers as well as to listen to and understand their concerns. Nothing can beat the credibility of their firsthand experience.

But even the most enthusiastic cadre of employees advocating a change cannot be successful without clear management support. Decisions and actions taken by leaders impact whether employees connect with the initiative and use their energy to push it to success or quietly nod in agreement while watching it fade into oblivion.  Successful change leadership believes in the values of the change, provides the vision and sets the direction, understands what employees are doing (or not doing) to foster the change, ensures that needed tools, processes, and infrastructure are in place, rewards success, learns from mistakes and is unafraid to make necessary course corrections along the way.

Quality guru Dr. Joseph Juran emphasized the primacy of clear leadership and involved employees in change implementation by connecting management behaviors and employee attitudes. This highlights the key factors and invites us to consider the interaction between them. Leadership is more effective when employees are engaged, and good leadership engages employees. There are many ways that managers can support a change, and each way will influence employees’ attitudes differently. The reverse is also true—what an employee knows about and feels about a change affects how he or she reacts to the same management behaviors.

There is a great deal to explore and learn about maximizing the chances of successfully implementing organizational change initiatives. I’m pleased to join the diverse and dynamic group of bloggers on  to share ideas and experience on implementing change.  In future blogs in this space, expect to hear about experiences exploring these ideas with participants in the workshop that I developed on organizational change, stories from clients who have applied the ideas, and insights provided through applying systems thinking (a methodology to understand how the components in a whole system influence each other) to change management.

More on these ideas in Creating Contagious Commitment by Andrea Shapiro, Ph.D.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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