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Leading Change: Do You Transform or Fail?

As human beings we crave certainty. While we may be hardwired for change (or otherwise we would never have climbed down from the trees) we like to stay in our comfort zone. 

"Moving out your comfort zone and embracing uncertainty can feel like jumping out of a plane and hoping your parachute works." 

Change creates uncertainty and moves us out of our comfort zone. Leaders need to be able to create or increase certainty during a change to reduce the impact on the individual. 

From a neuroscience perspective, maintaining certainty reduces the use of our Executive Brain (the Pre-frontal Cortex). When we are out of our comfort zone and in a state of uncertainty we can feel anxious, uncomfortable, afraid, frustrated or even excited. Our whole brain uses more energy than any other part of our body combined; with the Executive Brain being the most energy intense and literally drains our brain of energy when overused or used intensely. So from a survival perspective, maintaining certainty reduces our brain drain.

Ways of increasing certainty and reducing the ‘brain drain’ can be achieved by communicating well, and build or maintain a high level of trust with the team.

Leaders of change need to be aware that every person responds to change in different ways and if the change is too extreme or not lead well, teams can become change fatigued quickly (as our brains run out energy, we can start failing to cope, and our decision making ability may be affected). 

The Change Ladder, below, provides leaders with a view of where they are and how they lead in regards to change. Being aware of where they are on the ladder, the impact of change on themselves, and on their team is essential to lead well.

This shows a significant difference between a leader who is at the top of the ladder and influencing, they drive excellence and brings others on the journey; to a leader who is at the bottom of the ladder in denial and refusing the recognise that change is happening.

Change Ladder

Above the line, the leader is supporting and leading innovative thinking. 

Below the line, the leader is supporting a team and environment that is stagnatory; which has stopped developing, growing, progressing, and advancing.

  • Influencing … they are driving excellence, engaging with their team and stakeholders in pushing the boundaries of the change to discover what else can be achieved.
  • Committed … they support the change. They engage their team and stakeholders in problem solving and planning. Communication is frequent, open and transparent about why the need to adopt this change and what is going to happen.
  • Exploring … they involve themselves in understanding the change and working out how it is going to work. They are all in the communication loop and work collaboratively. The leader may delegate the responsibility of managing the change to a team member, as they don’t feel they need to actively lead the change.
  • Tokenistic … they are doing the bare minimum to ensure success of the change. They attend meetings if they have to, though are more likely to delegate to someone else without necessarily delegating authority. There is no regular communications with their team or they may actually discourage frequent communication from the project team to minimise the impact on their team’s time.
  • Resisting … they are not supporting the change and are not participating. They actually resist any efforts to implement the change and can be sabotaging any efforts to succeed. The chances of the change succeeding is low.
  • Denying … they are refusing to accept that change is happening and avoids engaging with the areas proposing it. They may use various excuses for not recognising the need to commit to the change. It can be like ‘putting their head in the sand’ and behaving as if this change doesn’t exist.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what happens when you are required to lead your teams through change that you are the recipient of rather than the sponsor for.

This blog is the second in a series (read Part 1 here) and part of a larger white paper on ‘Leadership in Driving Change’. Feel free to email me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like a copy.


Maree Burgess works with Leaders, Leaders of Leaders, Experts and anyone else looking to increase their skills in leading change, sponsoring projects, build their confidence to step into more senior roles.

She is an author of “The XX Project: Giving women the skills and confidence to step up in corporate”. You can order your copy here.


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