UK: Leading Organisational Change And Transition

Last Updated: 8 September 2011

Having to undergo an organisational change is often a very unappealing and anxiety-producing prospect to organisations and their individual members. Even though most of us recognise that the ever-changing global marketplace and the accompanying technology evolution require us to change in order to survive, the thought of having to endure painful transformations is disagreeable.

This White Paper aims to ease the pain by offering change management advice under five main headings:

  1. The difference between organisational change and transition
  2. How tunnel vision can impede organisational change
  3. Leadership – the key success factor in organisational change
  4. Effective organisational change and transition leadership practices
  5. What effective leaders do when they encounter resistance to organisational change

1. The difference between organisational change and transition

It has been written: "It isn't the changes that do you in, it's the transitions." No, organisational change is not the same as transition.

Change is the physical end-state of a transformation; it is the new situation and/or circumstance that is observable and measurable.

Transition is the psychological process of making something different; it occurs within the person(s) experiencing the change. The transition process is an internal, esoteric experience. Therefore it is not directly observable and is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to measure or to track.

The major difference between organisational change and transition is that transition is not a physical outcome, but rather a psychological state of mind: the letting go of the old reality in order to fully and effectively realise the benefits of the new reality.

The organisational change-transition process

2. How tunnel vision can impede organisational change

When a significant organisational change is being considered, leaders often overly focus on the desired outcome of the change. This tunnel vision can lead to a failure to recognise – and therefore to address – the transition process that must take place in order to have a successful and rewarding organisational change.

Intended benefits of organisational change

Consider the example of a physical relocation of corporate offices from London to Manchester. The organisational change is the physical movement of people, equipment and operational systems. The intended benefits (outcomes) of this organisational change include lower operating expenses for the company and, secondarily, an overall reduction in the cost of living for the employees who make the move.

Another example could be reengineering your company by flattening the organisation's structure, resulting in fewer layers of management and/or supervision, a reduction in bureaucracy, and more open channels for communications and information sharing.

Negative results of organisational change

Both of these examples of organisational change offer apparently appealing outcomes to both management and employees. There exists, however, the possibility that if either of these two physical changes is implemented without attention being paid to its accompanying psychological transitions, significant and offsetting negative results will occur.

While it is understood that an organisational change is physically (factually) completed when the desired end-state (goal of the organisational change) has been reached, the accompanying transition is only just beginning with that ending.

Significant transitions needed to reap the rewards of organisational change

In both of the examples mentioned above, there is the potential for overall rewarding outcomes. But both changes will require significant transitions (psychological adjustments) to be made by the people undertaking the changes before all parties can agree that the organisational changes were, in fact, rewarding.

It will require them to let go of something familiar and positive. The physical move from London to Manchester is accompanied by the transitional trauma of moving away from family and long-time friends. A reduction of organisational layers is frequently accompanied by a sense of loss of organisational prestige and self-worth or, in some situations, a fear of loss of employment.

3. Leadership – the key success factor in organisational change

In almost every documented example of organisations that have more successfully managed organisational change and transition, a key success factor was the presence of effective organisational change leadership (change management).

There was an individual leader and/or a group of leaders who supported and encouraged the organisational change(s) and the related transition(s) through consistent and appropriate actions.

These actions include the practices defined below.

4. Effective organisational change and transition leadership practices


  • What are your people really saying about the proposed organisational change?
  • Do they have issues and concerns (factual and/or perceived) about the organisational change that need to be explored?

Break down the organisational change

  • Smaller pieces are less threatening and more readily accepted. To avoid indigestion, pygmies eat the whole elephant over several meals.

Review, renew and revisit the vision

  • Few people are able to make a smooth transition to the future state without a clear understanding of the purpose and direction of the organisational change and the confidence that we are going in the right direction.
  • The power of a vision for a brighter future can never be overlooked or over-valued.

Be open and candid

  • Acting in a secretive, uncommunicative manner, and/or distorting information about an organisational change, regardless of the rationale, will backfire and create a climate of fear and mistrust.
  • When in doubt, honesty and candour are always the best and safest route.

Have a transition plan

  • Vague and/or ill-defined calls for organisational change will result in increased levels of fear and resistance when people are facing new situations.
  • When you lack a clear goal and a path to take, any destination will be unappealing.

Be forthright and direct

  • Deliver the bad news face to face in a setting that encourages dialogue. Explain clearly to people what the organisational change is, why it is needed, and what is expected of them.
  • Follow up with the people to see how they are faring in the transition.

Involve everyone

  • Resistance increases when people feel that they have been left out of the organisational change process or that they are powerless and have no control over their lives at work. Those who are involved tend to support. Those who aren't, probably won't.

Be proactive in reducing fear

  • Seek out and explore options and alternatives with your people. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Expect resistance

  • Organisational changes are frequently perceived as threatening and are generally painful. Those things perceived as real are, in fact, real in their consequence.

5. What effective leaders do when they encounter resistance to organisational change

Identify who's losing what

  • Describe the organisational change in as much detail as you can. Be specific.
  • Try to foresee as many of the consequences of the organisational change as you can.
  • Who are the people most impacted in the cause-and-effect situations?
  • Beyond the specific losses, find out what is over for each individual.

Accept the reality and importance of the subjective losses

  • Be an effective, active listener. Above all, don't argue with perceptual reality!

Don't be surprised at overreaction

  • You must keep two things in mind:
  • First, organisational changes cause transitions, which, in turn, cause losses. It's the sense of loss (factual or perceptual) that is causing the overreactions.
  • Second, it's a piece of their world that is being lost, not yours. Overreaction often comes from past experiences, past losses.

Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically

  • You need to bring the losses out into the open, acknowledge them and express your concern for the affected people. Do it simply and directly.

Expect and accept the signs of grieving

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Disorientation
  • Depression.

Compensate for the losses

  • Find out what can be given back in order to balance out what has been taken away (e.g. status, turf, team membership, recognition).

Give people information, and do it again and again

  • Avoid the common rationalisations for not communicating about organisational change:
  • They don't need to know yet. We'll tell them when the time comes.
  • They already know all about the organisational change. We announced it last week.
  • I told the supervisors. It's their job to tell their employees about the change.
  • We don't know all the details ourselves, so we shouldn't say anything yet.

Clearly define what's changing and what isn't

  • Not being clear about organisational change can lead to the following difficulties:
  • People won't stop old practices, but will try to add the new things – leading to overload and burnout.
  • People will make their own decisions about what to stop doing and what to keep on doing, resulting in chaos.
  • People will toss out everything that was done in the past, and the baby will disappear with the bath water.

Formally and dramatically mark the endings

  • Don't just talk about the endings – create activities to dramatise them.

Treat the past with respect

  • Honour the past for what was accomplished.

Let people take a piece of the "old way" with them

  • Recognise the significance to employees of taking a piece of the past with them by assisting in the process.

Clarify how "endings" ensure continuity of what really matters

  • Show how the organisational change (e.g. replacement of an out-of-date product or service) will enable the organisation to survive. You will be showing the employees that by letting go of a piece of their past they have protected their future.

A final thought

Whatever must end must end! Don't drag it out!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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