We often think of change – especially organisational change – as something to be implemented and managed. Change is what happens in the organisational machinery, and in the context within which the organisation operates.

Viewed this way, the people that shape or are affected by changes are called stakeholders. Stakeholders are important because they have power to render the change project successful, or a failure. They can either buy in to the changes and engage in the program, or they resist and disengage from the process.

We are all familiar with this idea. It is primarily an exchange of power. Leaders have the power to make strategic decisions and allocate resources. Managers have the power to create tactics, distribute resources, and direct processes and people. Employees have the power to buy in and engage, or to resist. When this is done poorly, it all comes down to power, threats, coercion, and consequences.

But suppose we think of change from a different paradigm – the paradigm of learning as opposed to the paradigm of power. This doesn’t mean power is not involved – it is always involved, but power doesn’t have to be the dominant presence in the front of the stage.

From the vantage point of stakeholders, change is primarily about learning. For them, to change means learning how to do their jobs differently or learning to do new things. This requires them to change their mindset, to unlearn old practices and habits that are no longer relevant, to acquire new knowledge and skills, and to accept emotional labour.

Organisational change is difficult for many people because they worry about the difficulty of learning new things and discarding familiar things. They worry about being compared to others, being evaluated and assessed, and the potential consequences of change for their jobs and careers.

Coercion or threat makes all these problems worse. People don’t want to be micromanaged, but the learning environment should be managed carefully. If we want better change outcomes, we need to put learning at the front of the organisational change stage and place power further to the back. Both are needed, but we must get the positioning right.

Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at steve@thechangegym.com.