Five ways that leaders can facilitate successful change

We need to reimagine how we go about change, and enable leaders to develop a new mind-set and apply the right approaches.
By: | June 20, 2019


Leaders are not successful when they try to “persuade” employees to find meaning and make sense of a proposed change. It gets even worse when a leader “instructs” people to buy into a change, and “engage wholeheartedly as would it be their own company”.

When we need people to not only follow, but to be energized, engaged and do things out of conviction, then it is a question of enabling positive emotions to emerge and enable people to find a personal meaning in the change.

It’s about making sense (The Head), evoke engagement (The Heart) and thereby foster inspired actions (The Hands).

Because, if people cannot make sense of a “Change”, and do not feel emotionally connected to it, then the subsequent action will be mechanical, without conviction and probably fail.

Change programs fails in seven out of 10 cases, according to McKinsey, who also estimates that 39% of the failed programs are caused by employee resistance, while 33% are caused by inadequate management behaviours. The ChangeLab researched in a recent study, that the probability of a successful change doubles when the leaders use inquiry instead of telling people what to do. The same study reveals that teams that successfully change have a psychological safety environment that is 60% higher than unsuccessful teams.

Therefore; how leaders facilitate change, and foster a safe team environment, are two key critical factors of successful change.

We need to reimagine how we go about change, and enable leaders to develop a new mind-set and apply the right approaches. Traditional management approaches are not helping here, and “Tell and Control” is counterproductive. A leader who only inspires will only set the team in motion, but not bring the change to a successful conclusion.

The leader’s role in a change situation requires additional capabilities and more adaptability, as uncertainty and emotional stress change the dynamics between people.  A previously high performing and harmonic team can go off the rails due to anxiety, and the team environment may turn toxic, if team members are preoccupied with self-protection. At the same time, the pressure is high to continue producing good results, while the change process moves on.

These five points help the leader towards successful change for the team:


Be a leader that facilitates

Until a leader needs to take a decision – for example, provide direction – the leader’s mind-set should be about creating space for the team, set the framework for dialogue and ensure that all voices in the team are heard. By doing this, the team members are enabled to bring up opinions and ask questions, which in turn help to make sense of the desired change.

Emotions are always emerging during a Change process, and there is no need to suppress or be afraid of them. It’s natural, and in fact something that a skilled facilitator can work with constructively.


Emotions tend to be contagious, and by addressing emotions with empathy and being genuine, the facilitator can help the team to see the potential upsides in emotions. Anger is a potential source of energy; Sadness can be a source of appreciation and so on.


 Create a safe and constructive environment

Teams facing change will be emotional. The way people display it, will be complex; some turn inwards while other may be aggressive.

In this fragile and complex situation, it is important to foster a climate where team members can “put the fish on the table” and have conflicts, without fearing to be shamed, blamed or ridiculed.

This conflict is vital for the alignment and commitment needed in the change process, and it is the facilitating leader’s responsibility that it is constructive and respectful.


The leader can introduce the concept of a “Designed Team Alliance”, where the team members formulate what they need from each other in regards to communication, behaviours and mind-set.

Call a meeting specifically for this, and ask the team to create a poster that represents the Team Alliance. Firstly it makes the team having an intentional dialogue about how it wants to be, and secondly it is a Charter that the team can refer to when things heat up.

By taking these two first steps, the leader creates a solid and safe micro-environment for the team. Constructive conflict is facilitated, which is a vital pre-requisite for generation of new ideas, detection of pitfalls and fostering of new behaviours that support successful change.


Work with the team as a “team system”

In a change process, it is easy to get caught up with individual employees who require special attention. It is obviously very critical to continue to have a trustful relationship with individuals, but it needs to be balanced with the overall team well-being and emotions.

This means that the leader must be aware of not creating so-called In- and Out groups, where favouritism puts the internal team collaboration and performance at risk.

When we understand a team as a “system”, we realize that the system has an own identity, and there are many different voices that need to be heard. A team is more than a group of individuals, in which people may take on roles and voice opinions because they subconsciously believe that this is what the system needs.


In such situations, it can be helpful to introduce the “Deep Democracy” exercise, where team members are required to speak from different roles.

This enables the team to discover new opinions, identify areas of conflict and create an understanding of where alignment is needed. The objective is to create awareness that helps to tackle the issues at hand. We recommend that this exercise is facilitated by an external Organisational Relationship Systems Coach, allowing the leader to be an integral part of the exercise and the team system.


Ask Open-Ended Questions, but don’t make it a game of “Jeopardy”

All too often, leaders are using the open-ended question technique as a form of “Jeopardy”, where the question is designed to make the respondent come to the same result as the leader. It is pure manipulation, and extremely damaging for the trust in the leader.

Open-ended questions must be born out of sincere curiosity, and the leader will have to deal with any response in an authentic and constructive way.

This conflict of opinions or perspective is a key critical element of facilitation, and should not be sacrificed for the sake of a leader wanting to be invulnerable.


Build Bridges: Explain, Align and Create a Mission

Change is messy, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time. Despite the difference in opinions and behaviours, however, the team still needs to move ahead with the change process.

But building bridges can be a cumbersome exercise, where it helps to work with the team in a different way.


When a team is fractioned, it can be very helpful to introduce the Lands Work exercise, where the different fractions are “visiting” the other fractions’ lands, enabling to experience the challenges, views and feelings of another part of the organisation.

This exercise creates a deeper understanding of what drives the behaviours of other team-members, helps to dissolve silos and creates new level of awareness and appreciation in the team.

Beware: One of the ugly pitfalls of a “coaching leader” is that employees can easily get confused about which role the leader is working from. Therefore it is crucial that the leader is openly communicating when she/he shifts into “coaching mode”.

For many leaders the facilitating approach may seem counter intuitive, because they feel that they give up control and become vulnerable.

Thus it is important that HR and higher ranking leaders are supporting this different approach through sound advise, training and role model behaviours.

About the Author

Henrik Kofod-Hansen is a co-founder of novosensus and a director of the School of Positive Psychology.