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Navigating the Politics and Emotions of Change

Ellen R. Auster (Schulich School, York University) and Trish Ruebottom (Goodman School of Business, Brock University) have worked with executives both as consultants and in more than 400 change projects conducted as part of the Kellogg/Schulich Executive MBA program. What they heard, over and over, was frustration over change projects that were cut short or stalled. The causes: push-back from staff, push-back from suppliers or simple fear of change. They saw innovative ideas get suffocated, time and energy wasted, and change goals sacrificed to short-term self-interest.

“Left unattended, skepticism, fear and panic can wreak havoc on any change process,” Auster and Ruebottom write. Employees can end up disengaged, distracted or burned out. Exasperated high-performing employees may even leave for calmer seas.

Auster and Ruebottom developed a five-step proactive process to enable change leaders to successfully navigate the politics and emotions that are churned up by change. The steps help identify and leverage the expertise, skills and resources of sponsors and promoters. They also draw in fence-sitters and help executives learn from two categories of skeptics: the positive skeptics (people who resist a change because they genuinely believe it has flaws) and the negative skeptics (people who tend to resist change for more personal and emotional reasons).

Action steps include demonstrating long-term benefits associated with the change, taking the time to ask for input on the change’s impact and creating a context that encourages "failing smart." It can also be important for executives to disassociate a change from previous changes by emphasizing differences in its content, in its process and in who's leading it.

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