Recognising the role of emotion in leading change

A McKinsey review of large-scale transformational programmes found that 70% failed to meet their intended objectives. As organisations begin to plan for how they will emerge from the current disruption into a new and changed landscape, then understanding the triggers for success or failure is key. Public services looking to seize the moment to create and sustain transformative his should concern leaders of public services for whom change has become business as usual, as they strive to transform organisations to work in ever more efficient and joined up ways.  

Change management has become a core competence for leaders and their effectiveness to lead. In coming months, transformation will inevitably come under greater pressure, as organisations charter new waters to find their new normal and regain lost momentum. In preparation, leaders should work with their board, SLT and management teams to identify personal and organisational readiness to deliver change.

This checklist provides a useful starting point to identifying the top three barriers to success:

  1. Expecting leaders to lead change without capacity or capability: the organisation lacks either the tools, skills or people power to manage the change process.
  2. A failure to build a future ready leadership cadre or workforce.  The organisation hasn’t decoded the new business strategy into what skills it needs to work in new and different ways or not determined whether it needs to build or buy in those future skills. 
  3. Leaders’ failure to address the emotional side of change that impedes their ability to bring staff with them on the change ride.

Leaders wishing to explore their organisations strengths and areas for development against these future leadership attributes may find it helpful to benchmark capability against other public bodies. This can be conducted systematically using a 360-assessment tool, ideally one that uses a data set drawn from public service rather than private organisations thus measuring performance driven by values consistent with your own.  

The feedback enables increased self-awareness from individuals about their strengths and development areas. Aggregated up anonymously, the data identifies any gaps in workforce capacity, capability and future skill requirements, skills to both the lead change process and to thrive in the future state. Critically, it will also surface your leaders’ collective ability to manage the emotional side of change. 

This emotional literacy is key – it’s a feature of our human wiring that emotion impacts behaviour, so how employees feel about a change will ultimately impact the success and speed of that endeavour.  In order to truly understand and prepare staff, leaders have to be self-aware about their own emotional responses, able to regulate those and also be sensitive to the range of emotions expressed by those they lead and work alongside. 

How emotions hijack change programmes

Reason doesn’t always reign supreme in the workplace.  As humans, still wired with a fight or flight mechanism, we scan the environment at work for threat constantly. We always, physiologically, have an emotional reaction to what we experience before we think and act. Yet when communicating change initiatives to the workforce, leaders often do so in a way that is biased towards what the rationale and reasonable. This can mean undue focus upon  negative emotions such as fears, anxiety, stress rather than  and rallying staff through more positive emotions like engagement, connection with the future vision and excitement for the future.

Transformation takes time to implement and embed. Often leaders fail to appreciate the emotional time lag between their own reaction to change and communicating the change to staff. When formal communications start, leaders may have had time to process the change, have dealt with their own emotion and moved on to a position of acceptance. 

No two employees will experience change in identical ways. The art of change leadership is to recognise when staff are at different stages of the change curve and adapt approaches accordingly. We call this ability to flex support strategies at different points along the change journey, the ‘leadership tasks of transition’. There are times when presenting a rational case for change will be entirely appropriate, other times when listening and consultation is needed and times when setting out a vision and direction will win out.

It’s key that anyone stuck in a negative emotional state about change is spotted and supported, and this often comes down to middle or front-line managers having permission to act and tools with which to do so. Emotions, particularly negative ones, can be contagious during a period of upheaval. They can spread through a team, line of service or the entire organisation through verbal and nonverbal exchanges and manifest in all sorts of ways including extreme disengagement and frustration. 

Practical tools to help leaders manage emotions

Comparative data enables leaders to take a step back and assess their own behaviour and leadership style in a rational and objective way, and to compare their own behavioural preferences against those of highly effective leaders and against the demands of their job. This helps them identify what needs to change and this diagnosis is a common feature of development programmes.

Even more powerful, is providing leaders with the practical tools to take the ‘what’ and figure out ‘how´ to change. Using practical tools from modern psychology and neuroscience provides leaders with an understanding of how their behavioural preferences interact with those of others and when taught across a leadership population, develops a shared vocabulary to manage change, have more productive win-win business relationships and quickly identify and halt emotional hijacks.

The needs of citizens and the structures and resources to support service delivery are fast changing and leaders must equip their organisations to keep pace. 360 assessment tools enable the leadership team to quickly develop an accurate picture of competence to deliver change across the organisation and ensure leaders and managers have the insight, behaviour and skill to effectively implement and embed change programmes.

If you would like to learn more about how our 360-assessment tool can enhance your organisations capability to manage change, please email

Jody Goldsworthy, Executive Director, Leadership & Talent Consultancy

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