Healthy Leaders


Change in Real Time: What You Need to Know As a Leader

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

This is Part 2 in a series on organizational change.
Part 1: Leader, Be Prepared! Your Followers May Resist Change.
Part 3: Without a Strategy for Change, You’re Sunk

Leaders lead their constituents somewhere different from where they are already. Thus, the essence of leadership is change. Consequently, leaders must understand the change process and how change is achieved.

The Process of Change

A typical pattern of events occurs from the beginning of a change to the end. Kurt Lewin, a researcher and social psychologist, divided the change process into three distinct phases:

  1. Unfreezing phase. People come to realize that the old ways of doing things are no longer appropriate and that change is needed. This recognition may occur as a result of an obvious crisis or from the leaders’ efforts to describe threats or opportunities not yet apparent to most people in the organization. An organizational “catharsis” of some kind is often necessary before the shell of complacency and self-righteousness is broken open and prejudices against major change removed.
  2. Changing phase. People look for new ways of doing things and select an appropriate and promising approach.
  3. Refreezing phase. The new approach is implemented and it becomes established.

All three phases are necessary for successful change. Moving too quickly through the stages can endanger the success of a change effort. If a leader attempts to move directly to the changing phase without first unfreezing the attitudes of his constituents, he is likely to meet with apathy at best and strong, organized resistance at worst. A lack of prayer, systematic diagnosis and problem solving in the changing phase will result in a weak change plan. And a lack of attention to consensus building and maintenance of enthusiasm in the third stage may result in the change being reversed soon after it is implemented.

This metaphor of unfreezing, changing and refreezing is useful in that it illuminates the distinct phases of the change process. Nevertheless, one should not overlook the fact that the status quo is not a static affair (as the image of “freezing” may lead us to believe) but a living and dynamic process. The status quo in an organization is “quasi-stationary” – like a river that continuously moves but still keeps a recognizable form. In leading change, the organizational structures, the people themselves and the outside world all need to be considered in their complex and dynamic interplay with each other.

How Change is Achieved

Now that we know what change looks like, how do we achieve it?

Change is achieved by two types of fundamental actions:

  1. Increasing the driving forces toward change. For example, by setting forth vision or by increasing incentives, etc.
  2. Reducing the restraining forces that create resistance to change. For example, by reducing fear of failure or economic loss, or by converting or removing opponents, etc.

If the restraining forces are weak, it may be sufficient merely to increase the positive, driving forces. However, when restraining forces are strong, a dual approach is usually best. Unless restraining forces can be reduced, an increase in driving forces will create an intense conflict over the change, and continuing resistance will make it more difficult to complete the unfreezing phase.

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 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, of course, 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 Change Strategy

There are two basic 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 surrounding it. 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.

As we’ve said before, any change procedure must be submitted to the will and purposes of God, and it must be bathed in prayer. But understanding the need, process, and reaction to change will help guide you and your organization through.

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