Change management is a diverse and multi-faceted process. It is not restricted to a certain type of organization and does not have a rigid framework. Instead, its flexibility and diversity allow the managers to apply its principles to any entity which requires change at a certain point. However, this diversity also leads to significant confusion as more managers try to rely on a set of ready-made instructions rather than developing a relevant approach for each setting.
The involvement of leadership as a necessary part of change management further complicates matters, mostly because of the lack of understanding of the role of leadership. The following paper aims at locating the factors critical to change management and determining the role of leadership in the process.
Critical Success Factors
Many change management approaches have been created since the concept was introduced (Van der Voet 2014). This also means that no definitive set of critical factors exists that would apply to any setting. Instead, most scholars suggest their lists of important components that are consistent with their managerial skills, styles, and goals. However, it is possible to isolate the most common factors which are recurring throughout the literature.
At the initial stage, the factor which is widely recognized but often missed is planning. While the recognition of the fact of organization’s shortcomings is the most obvious and common reason for initiating change, it is only a minor component of planning. Similarly, the goal of “improving the situation and eliminating barriers” does not qualify as a plan for change. Planning must attain two characteristic features to maximize the efficiency of the process.
First, it must be realistic and achievable. The person or group responsible for change must assess the capabilities of the organization and project the best and worth possible outcomes. It is not uncommon for the facilitators of change to be guided by the desires rather than reality, which then results in the unnecessary pressure on the team, ineffective resource allocation, and, eventually, a return to the initial undesirable stage (Ross 2014). Second, the planned progress must be measurable. “Striving for excellence” and “continuously improving quality” qualifies as a philosophy but cannot be measured or reported, making it unfit for a goal. Similarly, a set of milestones should be defined to systematically monitor, timely detect, and address the discrepancies of the process.
Once the appropriate plan is conceived, it is necessary to communicate the goals to the relevant stakeholders. As with the planning stage, several misconceptions exist which hamper the effectiveness of this aspect of change. First, the facilitators of change often focus on the immediate participants of the process, who, in most cases, are the employees. While their participation and shared vision are necessary for successful change management, the involvement of external stakeholders can be as important to the process. For instance, a lack of understanding from the customers may evaluate the results of the most carefully planned and implemented change management (Ahmad, Wynn, & Clarkson 2013).
Another important component of communication is a fair and clear outline of the most likely barriers and difficulties. The focus on the positive outcomes is tempting because it seemingly creates a more positive attitude among the staff. However, the challenges are inherent to the process, and their early acknowledgment will improve the possible reaction. Besides, the coverage of negative effects is beneficial for the image of a facilitator since fosters trust and mutual respect in the team (Wang et al. 2014).
Finally, the point which is often neglected is the accessibility of relevant information. Effective communication is not limited to several meetings – the participants should be able to obtain information on the progress and have a clear and reliable communication channel with the management to resolve the emerging questions and, more importantly, to leave feedback (Tourish 2014).
Another critical factor that is an integral part of change management is accountability. It is a well-known fact that the success of the change process depends largely on the facilitators. Nevertheless, when it comes to the execution, the responsible party sometimes tends to distance from the results which do not correlate with the set milestones by relocating responsibilities to other participants. This factor is somewhat complicated by the shared responsibility model or, to be more exact, its misinterpretation. While the latter encourages all of the stakeholders to participate in the process and accept responsibility for their actions, it should not be used as a circumvention of the former.
To avoid this, a clear and transparent model for shared responsibility must be introduced and maintained throughout the change implementation. The appropriate acknowledgment and acceptance of accountability improve trust and respect among the parties and contribute to shared vision (Vakola 2014). More importantly, it allows timely interventions to mitigate the errors and gaps in the process.
The Role of Effective Leadership
All of the outlined factors require an individual or a team responsible for introducing and maintaining them in the process. For instance, planning lies outside the scope of the employees of the company and requires the involvement of managers. At the same time, communication is a role most often associated with leaders. At this point, it is worth clarifying that while the concept of a leader is rooted in managerial practices, most of the authors tend to distinguish between the two.
However, because leaders often operate the intangible values and their role changes by the needs of particular situations, there is no clear definition and, by extension, no concise understanding of the difference between their responsibilities. Nevertheless, several tendencies should be summarized before we can proceed with identifying their roles in change management.
First, the majority of definitions specify the organizational role for the manager and the inspirational one for the leader (Keskes 2014). Second, the managers are often viewed as controlling and monitoring forces while the leaders are described as relying on trust and respect (Wang et al. 2014). Third, managers are usually tasked with structuring and systematization while the leaders are responsible for human attitudes and vision (Hoch & Dulebohn 2013).
This allows us to conceptualize managers as operating on a more tangible plane and dealing with hard data and concrete results, and leaders as working with intangible values which are less controllable and systematic. Thus we can safely conclude that the first critical factor, planning, rests entirely within the scope of the manager’s responsibilities. At the same time, communication can be viewed as fully pertinent to the leader’s role.
First, one of the leader’s main tasks in the change management is sharing the mission and vision of the organization. Communication is the most obvious tool for such sharing and presents a valuable channel for integrating the ideas into the most basic information bits, thus strengthening the commitment of the stakeholders and contributing to the favorable workplace environment (Berson et al. 2015).
Some theories even suggest the leaders should work on the company’s readiness for change before the need for change is evident (Savolainen 2013). In this way, the stakeholders are more susceptible to the suggested alterations if the need for them arises in the future and the whole concept of change is integrated into the company’s culture. Communicating the overall and long-term benefits of the suggested change also falls within the responsibilities of the leader. While the manager is responsible for showing the predicted improvements based on the systematic analysis of the current situation and the projected effect, it may not be enough to foster a commitment to the set goals and objectives.
The leader’s role is thus to envision the benefits of the successful change and be able to transfer it to the peers in the most efficient way and thus create mutual understanding and desire to pursue the set goals. Numerous studies suggest that direct financial reward plays a major role in motivating only a small percentage of the workforce, which also happens to be the least reliable in terms of long-term contribution to the company’s success (Chun et al. 2013). At the same time, the most valuable and proficient staff members are usually driven mostly by intangible values and are thus only partially susceptible to the information presented by the managers. As a result, we can safely assume that communication is among the main responsibilities of the leaders in change management.
Another notable role of the leaders is the support once the team encounters the first difficulties on the way. Even if we assume that the change management is thoroughly planned and the staff is 100% ready for the process and the possible barriers (which is virtually an unreachable goal) and no unexpected barriers arise (which is unlikely), the change is still likely to result in organizational stress, not to mention the emotional and psychological limitations of human resources (Van Kleef, van den Berg, & Heerdink 2015).
At this point, the leader is faced with additional challenges that are not characteristic of the managerial role: that of balance between the set objectives and the human perception. Focusing on the former can disrupt the trust and connection between the employees and the management and can lead to disillusionment in the chosen path and, by extension, a decline in productivity and commitment. Importantly, it can also bring short-term improvements that may be falsely perceived as proof of the correct choice of strategy. Overemphasizing the latter will improve the atmosphere in the workplace but would not guarantee a successful implementation of the planned change.
This is not to say that the leader is required to follow the set milestones blindly. On the contrary, one of the aspects of his supportive role is detecting the inconsistencies in the set objectives and making sure that the management is aware of the adverse effects of such discrepancies, with the excessive strain put on the stakeholders being one of the possible reasons to reevaluate and adjust the suggested course of actions. Additionally, the dissatisfaction with change can be triggered by other factors and should be used to assist the monitoring process.
While acknowledging the discrepancies and introducing adjustments is a managerial responsibility, determining underlying causes behind emotional and psychological dissatisfaction can be performed more effectively by a leader, who has a better understanding of the staff and maintain a connection with employees throughout the process as a part of their responsibilities.
A leader is also responsible for serving as a role model. This role is often misunderstood since the range of tasks of the employees does not intersect with that of a leader (Keskes 2014). Nevertheless, the readiness to accept responsibility for the decisions and actions can be shared with the team and can be used to promote a similar attitude throughout the company.
Displaying accountability includes the acknowledgment of mistakes and, more importantly, critical evaluation of possibly faulty actions and decisions regardless of their consequences and, more importantly, punitive actions. Such an approach promotes empowerment among the workers and stimulates more responsible decision making (Keskes 2014). Importantly, it also contributes to the contact and trust discussed in the previous paragraphs and improves the leader’s reputation.
One final role of the leader which must be highlighted becomes visible in the final phase of change management, which is popularly perceived as a finishing line. When the process is unsuccessful for some reason, the role of the leader mostly aligns with the one suggested for barriers in process, only on an understandably larger scale. After a successful implementation, however, leaders are required to provide management with relevant information regarding the advantages and shortcomings observed in the process and, more importantly, locate new objectives for further improvement.
The former can be used to gain additional insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the company and should be utilized in subsequent planning. The latter is fundamentally consistent with the role of leadership before the need for change becomes apparent, but with several distinctions.
First, after successful change management, the staff is more resilient to oncoming difficulties. Second, the previous experience (under the condition that the leader was able to mitigate the adverse effects) contributes to empowerment and improves the determination. Third, the employees are already familiar with at least the earliest signs of the promised improvement, which means they do not need to rely solely on the theorized outcome. As a result, leadership practices implemented appropriately at this stage will result in change management as a continuous rather than a discrete process and add a self-sustaining character to it.
Change management is a relatively young but already enormously diverse managerial practice. Depending on the area of implementation, scope, and type of the change process, and several individual parameters in each particular case, it prioritizes different factors. Nevertheless, a thorough, holistic, and flexible planning, well-established transparent two-way communication, and readiness to accept responsibility are critical factors that are present in almost all instances of change management.
Importantly, two of the three mentioned factors fall within the responsibilities of leaders. The role of leadership (as popularly simplified in the media) is not restricted to sharing vision and mission. Instead, it accounts for the majority of the managerial practices associated with the change process, but instead of focusing on the tangible data and short-term goals, contributes to overall progress and fosters values which are commonly associated with better outcomes in the long run.
Additionally, the focus on human resources provides useful insights and enhances managerial practices. While difficult to measure definitively, the role of leadership in change management remains a visible driving force and is a necessary component for a successful organizational transformation.
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