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Three (rarely talked about) Realities of Change Leadership

Being able to lead a team through change is one of the most important responsibilities for a manager and it is also one of the hardest to undertake. Unfortunately, the odds of succeeding at it aren’t good. McKinsey and Company is well known for their finding that change efforts fail 70% of the time.

There is no shortage of research, guidance, best practices, and opinions on how to lead change. The books and articles seem endless. There are also plenty of free frameworks, templates, and guides available to provide every leader with the tools they need to lead change. Consult this blog and you’ll find a couple articles too (Three Must-Haves for Leading Change and How to Initiate Change When You Lack Authority).

What a lot of these resources miss is getting to specifics about some of the realities of leading change. After my years of being a manager and working with teams as a consultant, I have found there are three rarely talked about but consistent realities of change efforts. If I had understood these earlier in my career, I would have been more effective at not only leading my team through change, but also preserving my wellbeing throughout it.

Understanding these realties helps set the stage for the mindset and energy needed to be an effective leader of change. Here they are.

Reality #1 –Achieving 100% buy-in is probably unlikely

For most workplace transformations that are designed to shift systems or organizational structure, achieving 100% buy-in is unlikely, maybe even impossible. Yet, “buy-in” is often spoken of in terms of an all or nothing goal, either you have it or you don’t.

All leaders benefit from identifying if they have this expectation for their change effort (i.e. all or nothing buy-in) and then adjusting their expectations accordingly. I recommend putting a number to it, say 70%. This means that if 70% of people impacted by the change buy-in to it, then you have met your goal.

This means, when you have 25 people impacted by a change and there are 5 loud critics who even blatantly say “I don’t buy-in to this!”, they’re still only 20% of the group. After you’ve made sure the remaining 20 are indeed neutral to supportive of the change, then keep moving forward.

I can hear it already “Yeah, but Amy. Those 5 people could derail the project.” Could they? Make sure of that first. You might be putting more power into their critique than it’s worth. But, if it is the case, then change the number. Maybe you need 85% buy-in to be successful.

The point is to avoid an all or nothing mindset with buy-in. For most change initiatives, 100% buy-in isn't realistic.

Reality #2 – Change leaders must communicate the same things over, and over again

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a change leader say of their staff:

“Why are they asking these questions again? I have explained the purpose, what’s changing, and when? How many times do I have to say this? They don’t get it!”

Here’s why, successful change requires acceptance and acceptance isn’t just having knowledge of what’s changing. Acceptance also means there is a desire to support the change, an understanding of exactly what is changing, and confidence to perform competently after the change is implemented. These are like “needs” and they must be fulfilled in order to reach acceptance.

To get to this point, people need to hear (essentially) the same thing over and again in different ways, at different venues, and at different points in the change process to reach acceptance.

Communicating throughout change requires patience and stamina. As a change leader, if you find yourself saying the same things over and over, you’re probably doing it right.

Reality #3 – Change leadership requires acceptance (even comfort with) negative emotion

Displaying some (not all) negative emotion should be acceptable at work. Examples include anger, frustration, sadness, fear, loneliness, jealousy, envy, annoyance, and apathy…just to name a few. (Note that rage was not in the list. Not rage, maybe not misery either…but you get my point.)

Yet, so many institutions stifle negative emotion and try to wipe it away with “look on the bright side” responses. I recently heard a manager describe a colleague who was reacting to their staff’s negative emotion by “trying to fix their feelings.” It didn’t work because you can’t fix anyone else’s feelings.

Giving people the space to feel what they need to feel about change, specifically if its negative, increases buy-in or acceptance of it. When people feel heard and seen by their bosses, they in turn want to do right by them. Even if staff don’t necessarily agree with what is changing, they’ll eventually reach acceptance because they support their supervisor (who in turn supports them). Change at work will elicit negative emotion and the more comfortable a manager is to navigate it, the more effective their leadership will be.

Again, leading change is one of the most important responsibilities for managers and one of the hardest to undertake. What helps is to understand some of the realities of it that are rarely addressed or talked about. The more candid we are about what it’s like to lead change, the better and likely more successful our change efforts will be.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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