The role of transformational leaders in change management

motivationChange management initiatives have a pretty awful record of success.  It’s perhaps not surprising that both social business projects and change projects succeed around 20% of the time.  Becoming a social business is after all, nothing if not a change project.

It seems a curse of our time that the cult of the leader is quite so pervasive, with those in charge of our organisations given super human powers to inspire and cajole.  Regular readings of this blog will know that I think this is hokum, and that the best change occurs when you work on the system, creating an environment that encourages the kind of behaviours you want to see from employees.

Some research from the Rotman School of Management suggests all may not be lost for the so called transformational leader.  It looked at the role of leaders in overcoming any cynicism that may exist towards the change project by employees.  The study suggests that there is particular value when the leader can exhibit their competence, with employees thus taking confidence that they are in good hands.

“Having a leader who can do those things makes people want to change,” says Katherine DeCelles, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School. She led the study with Paul Tesluk of the University of Buffalo and Faye Taxman at Virginia’s George Mason University.

Their data was compiled from several hundred surveys sent out to correctional officers across a number of US prisons.  They found that employee cynicism correlated with lower levels of commitment towards change.  What’s more, when the culture was broadly cynical, that flowed through into individual behaviours, often over-riding previously positive personal attitudes.

“The cynicism starts to become more of a norm, so it becomes much more entrenched,” said Prof. DeCelles.

The study suggests however that this cynical environment can be overcome with transformational leadership.  When leaders can help employees see themselves as valuable and competent, and can successfully communicate their ideas about why change is necessary, they can overcome the cynical culture.

The researchers chose prisons for their study due to the rigid and hierarchical structure often in place, which they suggest lends itself well to a cynical attitude towards change.

Does the study suggest that leaders can play a ‘transformational’ role in becoming social businesses?  I’m cynical as to the overall power they can yield, especially in comparison to the creation of a social environment, but nevertheless, it does seem rather hard to deliver change if both the leader isn’t on board with it, and the employees see them as incompetent.


2 thoughts on “The role of transformational leaders in change management

  1. What the researchers don't explain is with transformational leaders in place, how the environment got to be cynical in the first place?

  2. Worthwhile post, Adi; confidence plus competence by leadership is critical to change, whether it be a project / initiative or upping morale.

    To Nick's question, I found it interesting the researchers examined corrections officers. Not to be cynical, but with 25 years in law enforcement I'm confident that the number one issue in the way of just about everything in law enforcement is the cynicism within the culture of law enforcement. Leaders who wish to make a difference must be willing to fight that cynicism. The good news is that with time the values promoted by leadership can become imbedded in an organization, whether it be at the team level or throughout the organization. Perseverance may be THE most important trait of the leader.

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