Leading Followers to Change

We’ve all heard the saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink.” Leaders have that challenge when they are trying to effect change in their organization. Followers are actually like sponges and when the leader exhibits the right leadership characteristics, leaders can create change and keep followers comfortable with change. These characteristics include having self confidence, the ability to clearly explain the change, the ability to motivate the followers to want the change and the ability to execute and maintain change.

Unleashing Change

Followers can sense when a leader has self-confidence which is a trait consisting of self esteem and self-assurance in his ability to make change happen and his ability to motivate followers to change (Northouse, 2004).  Adding to this thought, Gunn (1999) asserts that followers who experience effective leadership can recognize it. He also stated that followers feel calm, confident, have faith in the vision, are willing to help, feel that the tasks aren’t difficult, when the leader acts with common sense, decency and intelligence. Exhibiting too much self-confidence can have the opposite impact.

My current supervisor decided to implement the use of an automated tool to track technical documents. Since this is a new tool, everyone on the project required training. Not only did he have an overabundance of confidence as he announced his plans to make the change, but exuded arrogance. The stakeholders that came to take the training already had the mindset to reject the tool and the training because of the arrogance in the leader. I have witnessed condescending conversations with stakeholders where this leader would tell the stakeholder that they were going to use the new tool because it is what was expected. He did not attempt to get buy-in or assign an idea champion (Daft, 2007) to help motivate others or fight possible resistance. Maurer (2005) agrees that an ideal champion would serve to let everyone in the organization know that the change is a critical priority because the message is conveyed in all of the leader’s regular team meetings as well as other key meetings within the organization. I explained the concept of idea champion to the leader and he insisted that the leader of the entire project was the  idea champion.

 Although he explained why he wanted to introduce the new tool to the stakeholders, the message of change wasn’t being received because it came across as an edict instead of this great tool that could make their jobs easier. In addition, his transformational leadership style wasn’t motivational but egotistical. In other words, the leader is meeting resistance while trying to unfreeze the current manual system of tracking documents in order to implement the new way because he is unwilling to get buy-in, and unprepared to motivate them to want to change. Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, introduced the unfreeze-change-refreeze concept which includes creating the motivation to change (unfreeze), encouraging productive communication and authorizing followers to embrace new ways of working (change), and the whole process ends when the organization has stabilized with the new change (refreeze).

Coaching for Change

In order to help this leader understand that he is creating barriers to change, a consultant would develop a mutual trusting relationship and then provide honest, insightful advice. The leader would be encouraged to discuss fears and concerns, why there is resistance and his leadership style. The consultant would be able to explain the response to his behavior based on observations and interviews with the followers and stakeholders. Additionally, the consultant would explain the psychodynamic approach by Northouse (2004) in order to help him understand the follower’s response. This approach reveals how family members, such as a parent, influence the leader and they may not be conscious of the influence they had on them. According to Northouse (2004) it is the early years of childhood when the deep-seated feelings about leadership are created by parents. The child still has ties to the parent and that influence can be positive or negative and will show up in the adult behavior. If the consultant is able to help the leader understand and adjust this behavior, the leader will have a greater likelihood of leading the followers to change because the leader would be aware of his actions, the responses and may be able to make adjustments when necessary.


Clear Visions Promote Change

Leaders should know why a change is taking place, be able to articulate the vision to his followers’, know what it will look like upon completion, be able to explain which functions/tasks are being replaced, know what the follower’s role looks like, know the sequence of events and lastly, be able to provide a timeline and milestones of success. In the current century, followers no longer sit and let change happen without asking why. The 21st Century requires new adaptive strategies to meet the needs of Generation Y followers –in the workplace. Generation Y followers were born between 1978 and 1994 and Martin (2005) describes them as “blunt, techno-savvy, contradictory children of Baby Boomers who believe education is a key to success…are independent, entrepreneurial thinkers who relish responsibility, demand immediate feedback, and expect a sense of accomplishment hourly. They thrive on challenging work and creative expression, love freedom and flexibility, and hate micromanagement.”  Hill and Stephens (2003) assert that Generation Y employees want their opinions and beliefs to be heard and they want answers as it pertains to the success of the organization. It behooves the leader to listen to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:11-15, where he urges everyone to encourage, teach, listen to, and respect one another as they recognize each other’s work efforts. Leaders must create an environment that fosters collaboration and open discussions resulting in a cohesive vision. If this approach is taken, followers will willingly head towards change because they have ownership in and understand the vision as well as trust the leader.

Instead of systematically devising a vision and a plan, my leader had brainstorming sessions with two out of four of his followers and rapidly implemented the change.  He knew that it was more efficient to use the new tool to track documents, knew that the stakeholders needed training, and he knew that there was an urgent need for the tool, however he didn’t sit down and write his vision or the plan to implement the change.  He didn’t consult with the remaining followers to ensure that everyone was in agreement concerning the vision nor discuss the impact. The followers weren’t aware of the impact on their workload until everyone began to use the tool. This placed additional burden and stress on the followers, resulting in job dissatisfaction. Reynierse (Jan. 1994) emphasized that a leader’s vision or plan will be somewhat ineffective when the leader doesn’t provide the proper attention to their impact on the followers, because it  is the followers who will implement the strategy and make it succeed or fail.

I am one of the followers of this leader and I am experiencing the added burden, stress and job dissatisfaction due to the increased workload. Two other members of the team asked for reassignments to other positions on the project because of the frustration.

The tool requires significant amounts of time populating forms with data about the documents. Not only are the documents being tracked, but the tool notifies a stakeholder that they are required to review the documents (peer review). When the stakeholder decides that they are going to ignore the email message, the leader has his staff physically locate the stakeholder to follow up and advise them to review the document, resulting in frustration. There are hundreds of documents and emails.

Coaching for Change

First, the leader must develop the vision. The consultant would educate the leader on Stewart’s (1993) concept of ‘future state visioning,’ which is

 “the process of conceptualizing and implementing significant change in complex organizations. It helps the leader determine what and where you want to be by a future date. After developing ideas about the nature of the future environment facing the organization and the stakeholders who will be significant at that time, executives can articulate the values and principles which should guide actions leading to the future state vision.”

The consultant could provide guidance in developing the vision and strategy for change, including developing plans to overcome resistance to change. This task entails describing how the future will look and the steps to get there. Although there are a variety of exercises, the consultant could recommend a strategic thinking exercise introduced by Liedtka (1998), which would allow the leader to:

  1.     see the Systems Perspective – how the company, the program, people and personal choices inter-relate
  2.     be Intent Focused – has specific goals in mind
  3.     recognize Intelligent Opportunism –take other people’s strategies into consideration
  4.     think in time –study lessons learned to go forward
  5.     share his results with his staff

The leader must keep in mind that the vision must be communicated as a shared vision, thus, “a leader’s ability to powerfully articulate a compelling and viable vision is critical to initiating organizational change by enhancing followers’ openness toward change, collective efficacy to radically transform the status quo, and trust in the leader’s vision ( Groves , 2005).”

The consultant could also recommend the following additional activities:

  • have meetings, put out memos and have personal contact in order to get the vision out to the users of the tool.
  • advise to collaborate with his entire staff to create the vision and work out any problems.
  • share the perceived benefits
  • express how the change will affect their jobs
  • discuss who should provide training
  • assign a volunteer to be an idea champion, one who can persuade others about implementation.

Motivation Promotes Comfort with Change

The leader must be able to motivate followers and stakeholders (tool users) to want to change, but at times the leader’s personality plays a critical role in motivating a follower. Motivational speakers have great knowledge in how to motivate their followers properly, you can take many inspiration from their work, for example from a professional like Richard Jadick. In other words, the leader is able to influence the follower to accept change based on perceived leadership traits such as intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity and sociability (Northouse, 2004). If a leader has self-confidence, is comfortable listening to critical feedback from his followers, making the necessary changes, and can examine his leadership style he will probably receive a greater degree of cooperation in accepting change. A motivated follower will feel compelled to help. In addition, if the leader will do as Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 10:24, which is to not think only of your own good or that of the company but to think of what is best for others, he will get some acceptance. Through motivation the common goals can be achieved without resistance and followers are willing to change and help with the change.

Although my leader has concern for the follower’s well-being, will socialize with the team and stakeholders, he has elected to take a autocratic transactional leadership style and he talks a lot about how much control he has in his organization. He listens to those followers that agree with his objectives and vision so the perception is that he doesn’t accept feedback or dissent from the other followers or stakeholders. Lastly, his personality tells his followers that he has an arrogant streak, therefore; he is having a hard time convincing his followers or stakeholders to help him. I believe this leader is going to have challenges refreezing change on this project because he believes that there are two methods of implementing change: “revolutionary which is charging in and telling stakeholders what they are going to do and because they do not understand what needs to happen” and “evolutionary which is taking time to explain everything step by step.” I had this conversation with him yesterday and he told me that he felt that he made the right decision to make the change in a revolutionary way. I advised that he is going to have a lot of resistance and stakeholders will try to return to the old system if he doesn’t change his opinion.

Coaching for Change

While the consultant continues to cultivate the relationship with the leader, he would explain the benefits of getting buy-in from his followers and recommend he conduct working and feedback sessions to discuss pros and cons to the change and how the changes will impact their lives, goals and ambitions. He would also guide the leader to capitalize on what the followers can contribute to the change, their strengths and weaknesses. Sanders and Eskridge (1994) advocates motivating followers by asking them to participate in the planning and management of the change which would increase trust in the leader, resulting in followers who are willing to help with the change. Furthermore, because they have an honest relationship, the consultant would help the leader understand how his personality can be a source of discouragement or motivation and try to focus him on making changes within.

Proper Implementation Maintains Change

Execution is very important to keeping followers comfortable with change. When the implementation is chaotic such as frequent changes in the training materials and in the sequence of events, followers will not be comfortable and resistance will occur. Followers will think “if he isn’t sure of what he is trying to accomplish, how do we know this change will be stable?” The difference between successful and unsuccessful implementation is the method in which leadership encourages and educates followers to act on a new plan (Galpin, 1997).   

The final action the leader has taken that has the stakeholders in an uproar is the leader’s decision to implement the new tool without a schedule. The tool was launched and the stakeholders were expected to use it. We currently have a large group of people pointing fingers at our organization, stating that their documents are not meeting delivery dates because his followers are delaying the process. In actuality, the tool is effective but not efficient. The tool requires multiple screens of data entered for each document placed in the system, therefore the stakeholders do experience delays in getting their documents entered into the system. It also requires different people inputting data because of role responsibilities.

Presently, there is so much unrest that the leader is willing to listen to critical feedback from his followers and stakeholders and willing to make adjustments, otherwise; stakeholders will complain to executive leadership so that they can revert (refreeze) back to the old method of tracking documents.

Coaching for Change

Kavanagh and Ashkanasy (2006) of Australia found that many times “changes that take place as a result of a merger are forced upon leaders themselves, and it is regularly the speed of change that hinders the success of the change in the culture. They emphasize that success also depends on follower perceptions about how the process was handled, the effectiveness of communication and a clear vision.” Leaders need to be capable and trained in the process of changing organizations to guarantee that followers and stakeholders within the organization accept the changes.  

Leadership that is open to advice from experienced consultants will agree that the Australians are correct. Additionally, there are steps to create change and keep followers comfortable with change and are as follows:

  • have confidence in what one is trying to change
  • understand your own fears and concerns about the change
  • know why a change is taking place
  • be open to advice from those more knowledgeable about change
  • have a solid vision an be able to articulate the vision to followers and know how they will be affected
  • explain which things are being replaced
  • know what the future will look like upon completion of the change
  • seek out a change champion to persuade others to participate in and accept change
  • provide a timeline and milestones for success
  • audit the change to determine problems and make adjustments