Article: Change Management 101

Most change initiatives don’t achieve their desired goals. Here’s what you need to know. 

Learn how to change with a purpose

By Sally C. Woods, Ed.D.


Change management is more difficult than most business leaders realize.

I’ve spent years in the area of change management, helping organizations in a wide range of industries successfully implement change initiatives. I’ve also taught The BB&T Leadership Institute’s Leading Change with Purpose program to countless business executives and have learned firsthand about their successes and failures with change initiatives.

Here’s a primer based on what I’ve discovered business leaders need to know about change management.

What is change management?

Change management is an intentional and structured discipline. This discipline involves the collection of tools, methodologies and mindsets that organizations and leaders need to use to successfully implement a new solution to a complex problem. 

Why is the discipline of change management important?

Research from Herman Miller, John Kotter, Peter Senge, Chris Argyris and others consistently shows that 70% of change initiatives fail to achieve their intended goal. When a change initiative fails, it usually isn’t because the solution is bad. Rather, it is typically because the organization’s leaders did not pay enough attention to their employees’ mindsets. Organizations often devote incredible resources to the operational, administrative, procedural and logistical elements of change (the technical systems)—and fail to consider the people element (the human system).

People experience various, often mixed emotions as they try to adjust to new situations in their workplace. Without resolution, employees’ conflicting or negative emotions can prevent a change initiative from getting off the ground or from being successfully completed.

What are the effects of change?

A change initiative always affects an organization’s employees. The effects are psychological and interpersonal (i.e., how people relate to and communicate with each other).

Generally, people experience change in four stages, although it is not necessarily a linear process.

  • The first stage is denial, which is often unconscious. During denial, people refuse to accept or even acknowledge the change is happening.
  • If people work through their denial, the next stage is resistance. There are many reasons that people resist change such as a fear of loss and change fatigue.
  • The third stage is exploration. Employees are starting to envision the future and alternatives, but they may still be skeptical about the change.
  • The final stage is commitment. They may not fully agree with every aspect of the change, but they are committed to moving forward.

How should leaders implement change management?

Leaders need to have a plan and structure for their change initiative. In the Leading Change with Purpose program, we provide participants with a framework for structuring a change initiative. Our model for change leaders addresses both “how to be”—focusing on the relationship-oriented, human dynamics aspect of change, and “what to do”—focusing on doing the right things at the right time in a change initiative. Our model includes a seven-phase change process based on several complementary theories of change management, including Kotter’s groundbreaking work. 

How should leaders plan for change?

As leaders plan for a change, they need to understand what they want to change, whether it’s a single internal process or their organization’s entire business model. However, most importantly, they need to understand the root cause of what needs to be changed. They also need to enlist the key stakeholders who are going to lead the change and envision what success will look like. Leaders need to encourage their employees to embrace the change, which includes communicating the vision and the why of the change. Change leaders are responsible for creating an environment that is inspirational and motivational, so all associates can navigate this challenging time as smoothly as possible.

The change plan should include a way to let employees understand the impacts of the change initiative. Communication about the status of the change initiative and its positive effects must be pervasive. Unfortunately, leaders often fail to communicate frequently about the change initiative or invite two-way communication with employees. Moreover, that communication gap can stymie the change’s success.

What is leadership’s role in change management?

Leaders need to concern themselves with the experience of their employees. Of course, they must be concerned about aspects of the structural and operational changes, but arguably the most important aspect of every change initiative is the human dynamic.

My concluding advice to leaders? Don’t get too caught up in the particulars of a change initiative – remember the human factor! Ultimately, it’s up to your employees to determine how well a change will succeed.

As we often say at The Leadership Institute, “Organizations don’t change; people do.”

Take the next step

For more information about Leading Change with Purpose, or our other programs, please call 336-665-3300 or email us at

Learn more about change management

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