A mentor once said “you manage constraints and you lead towards possibilities”. Another colleague also told me “you manage things and you lead people.” When it comes to organizational change, these two principles also apply. Organizational change leadership deals with how one influences other people to buy-in and commit to changes and/or new ideas. As one who is in a leadership position and also who has been fortunate to have observed other effective change leaders, here are some principles I’ve come to adopt when I am leading change.

1. Go with the willing first. Realize that different folks in the organization will not be at the same level of awareness and interest when it comes to new ideas. For folks to buy-in, they must first be made aware of the proposed changes and they themselves then must commit to accepting or rejecting the idea. Some folks, given their disposition, personalities, and interests will be more willing and able to accept the proposed changes. These are the folks who can provide initial positive momentum and interests that will not only advance the implementation of the proposed change but in the process will demonstrate to others the values of the changes as well. I’ve seen it too often and I’ve experienced this myself when leaders are discouraged with their efforts and lack of progress because they focus too much on those who are unwilling to adopt the changes and the criticisms levied by those folks. But, in focusing on those who are willing, progress will be made and positive energy/momentum will be sustained.

2. Engage influencers in the organization. There are individuals in organizations who have the credibility and respect of their peers. These are folks who are not always in management positions, rather these are folks who are liked socially, have the reputation for getting things done, and who management can count on to get things done. These are folks that can be very beneficial in getting the buy-in of others so when leading change, they should be approached at the beginning and throughout the efforts so they know what’s going on, for them to develop interests in the new idea, and spread the message with their peers.

3. Use the social network effect. Related to points 1 and 2 above, create/promote a social structure where folks can share ideas in social settings. I’ve learned that department meetings are forums for announcements/awareness but I’m not going to convince folks in one session to develop interests in changes being proposed. Realize that when folks go to lunches, go on breaks, that’s when they often have deeper conversations about what’s going on with the departments. For this reason, it’s important to work with the folks who are willing and who are the organizational influencers who can then advocate for the change during these casual and social conversations.

Organizational change can be emotional and psychologically hard on people because it impacts their identity, their value systems, their reputation, and their livelihood. For these reasons, folks leading organizational changes cannot overlook the significance of the individual needs and interests of those involved. In the end, folks are asking this question when it comes to change – “what’s in it for me?”

What other methods and principles have you used to successfully lead organizational changes?