good change leadership

What Makes a Good Change Leader?

By Martin Royal

It’s been well established change initiatives have high rates of failures. It is well documented that the costs of poorly managed change initiatives measure in the millions. Therefore, understanding the reactions of employees to planned organizational change is a significant concern for many organizations. Many organizations are confronted with swift environmental, industrial and technological changes that challenge them to continuously adapt their processes. Effective organizational changes rely on the cooperation and engagement of employees. Poorly managed changes may lead to a variety of unwanted outcomes. These may include decreased workplace satisfaction rates, reduction in both individual and overall company productivity, decreased employee well-being, and increased absenteeism and turnover.


Effective implementation of change can create a major challenge for organizational leaders. The role that leaders play in the change process greatly impacts the outcomes of the change effort. It has been well established that employees are more receptive to change when they receive timely and accurate information about corporate expectations and the implications of change. We also see greater success in efforts to implement change when employees are encouraged to participate in the implementation of these changes. Unsurprisingly, success is further bolstered when employees trust those leading the change effort (Wittig, 2012).


Researchers Higgs and Rowland (2005) examined the behaviors of leaders within 70 change stories and the impact these behaviors had on the success of the change effort. Three broad mindsets and behavior expectations that change leaders engage in were identified. These mindsets were identified as shaping, framing change and creating capacity.


According to the research done by Higgs and Rowland, shaping is the least effective leadership approach to change. Shaping is a leader-centric approach where the leader develops and sets all expectations regarding what the team should change and how fast these changes should be implemented. The leader then holds the team accountable for engaging in these specified tasks. In this instance the leader holds all of the cards regarding the design and timing of change. Higgs and Rowland found that this ego-driven leader-centric approach has a negative impact on the change success in all of the contexts examined.

Framing Change.

A more effective leadership approach to change is what Higgs and Rowland refer to as a system-focused approach called framing. Framing focuses on team engagement in designing the environment and the context for change. This approach demonstrates a high level of trust in the team’s ability to design the focus of the changes they are being asked to implement. When leaders frame the change, they work with their team to build a vision and develop the necessary steps to achieve it. These leaders support their teams in understanding why the change is necessary. They establish the stage and set the rules by which the team will decide how to play their cards.

Building Capacity.

Another effective approach to change is a group-focused approach known as building capacity. In this approach, the leader’s role is to build the organizational and individual capabilities to implement change by encouraging growth and learning. Building capacity is the hallmark of a process leader that focuses on developing his/her team’s skills to implement change. Such leaders provide feedback and coach their team toward success.


How do you develop an effective leadership approach toward change? Higgs & Rowland (201) found that leaders who demonstrated the most effective leadership approach also possess very high levels of self-awareness. These leaders notice their own impulses. They are aware of their struggles. They regularly seek feedback, and they use empathy to place themselves in others’ shoes. This active use of empathy allows leaders to gain an understanding of the impact their leadership has on their team members. They then use this information to understand how they can adapt their approaches to improve outcomes. In previous research, self-awareness was associated with managerial competence, authentic leadership, and improved individual and organizational performance. Extremely self-aware leaders are conscious of how to use their presence in the change process. These leaders are able to work in the moment and stay attentive. They are able to maintain focus on the large picture of the change context.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to understand where you are in regards to your own awareness. They may help you better understand where you stand in regard to effective change leadership.

• Who are the stakeholders you seek to engage in implementing a change?
• For each of these stakeholders, what is the impact that you want to create?
• For each of these stakeholders, what struggles do they need to overcome?
• How will you use your presence to support these stakeholders?

If you’re interested in further brainstorming ideas on how you can improve your personal impact, or that of your leadership team, to drive organizational and cultural change, get in touch with a member of the Propulo team!


Higgs, M. J. and Rowland, D. (2010). Emperors With Clothes On: The Role of Self-awareness in Developing Effective Change Leadership. Journal of Change Management, 10(4), 369-385.

Higgs, M. J. and Rowland, D. (2005). All changes great and small: exploring approaches to change and its leadership. Journal of Change Management, 5(2), 121–151.

Wittig, C. (2012). Employees’ Reactions to Organizational Change. OD Practitioner, 44(2), 23-28.


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