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Change leadership: Working with individuals

Kenny Wheeler he considers leading change with individuals.

In his previous article, Kenny Wheeler wrote about change leadership at a strategic level. In this article he considers leading change with individuals.


  • Change needs to be considered not only at a strategic level but also at an individual one.
  • There must be clarity as to what individuals are asked to do.
  • Leading change at an individual level is necessary to prevent some individuals from getting stuck in the change curve.

Using Kurt Lewin’s model can help: unfreeze, change and then re-freeze working practices within an organisation culture. Whilst Lewin and Kotter’s model is great for considering change at a strategic level and for implementing change it is also necessary to consider how you can influence change at an individual level.

Three responses to change

Even if it is long overdue, there are going to be different responses to change, which means that the blanket messages or communication given in staff meetings or INSET days is not going to be enough to support the change process. Broadly speaking there are going to be three responses to change, these being political, emotional and rational.

One: Political

You are changing how the organisation operates and so might be inadvertently impacting on power dynamics. Perhaps that is part of the reason why change is needed! There may be some resistance to change because people may feel changes will impact on the status quo, colleagues might no longer come to particular individuals for advice because of new structures or processes.

Two: Emotional

There may be lots going on for individuals and more change means more uncertainty:

  • The uncertainty of what the new normal will look like.
  • The uncertainty of expectations.
  • The uncertainty of being able to cope and deliver what is being asked.

Three: Rational

There is a point where people process, assimilate information and then make sense of what it means for them, and what they need to do in order to meet the new expectations that change will bring. This is the point where, through our leadership, we need people to end up so that they are focusing on the real challenges ahead.

Stages of change

John Fisher’s personal transition curve, the stages of personal change, is a great visual for showing the different stages of change that individuals will go through. You can find out more here: https://bit.ly/3fJecJm

There are other change curves, like the Kubler-Ross change curve, but all have a similar theme in that they look at the human responses to change.

Some of the emotions that might well be experienced throughout the change process are:

  • anxiety
  • fear
  • hostility
  • denial
  • frustration
  • annoyance at self and others
  • disillusionment
  • acceptance.

Even though change might have been introduced at the same time for everyone, how they deal with it will impact on where they are on the change curve and more importantly how long it takes them to get to the end of the change curve (if they ever do).

Stage 1

Change is announced and, for some, the initial reaction is fear. What does this mean for me, and my practices, equally can I cope with change right now?

Stage 2

Happiness may be experienced as some are glad that change is going to occur. I like to call this uninformed optimism because it may well be at this point that individuals have not fully grasped the full extent of change or the ramifications this will have on them and their practices.

Stage 3

Reality hits, the uninformed optimism turns to informed pessimism as individuals realise the extent of change and may well reflect on how they have operated in the past. There could be some element of guilt as individuals may feel what they did in the past was not best practice. There is going to be a real need for positive conversations to give people belief that they can continue to deal with change.

Stage 4

Some experimentation to test out new practices and approaches. Individuals at this point have accepted change and are looking to adapt what they do with a more positive outlook. There might be some guiding, coaching and affirmation that individuals are moving in the right direction.

Stage 5

We are there, individuals are adopting new practices and approaches and are seeing these as part of their everyday routine. We need to make sure we continue to focus on making the new approach the normal approach otherwise people might revert back to old practices.

Working through these stages

The way we introduce change and share it with our staff and teams is important. We need to ensure there is clarity as to what we are asking individuals to do and ideally back this up with the reasons why these changes are necessary. This might be taking us back to our vision and aligning our new plans with our vision so that everyone understands the purpose behind change.

Moving to an individual level for managing and leading change is necessary. We might not be able to speed up the change process but if we do nothing as leaders then some individuals might get stuck in the change curve which will impact on overall morale and motivation.

Working as an individual

Early on there will be some who seem to be oblivious to change, almost burying their heads in the sand until it all goes away. It doesn’t matter how many meetings you have, these individuals are going to need one-on-one conversations so that you can bring them back to reality and so they can embrace change with support and some guidance.

However, one point to really make clear is that we need individuals to respond rationally as adults. Whilst we want to be supportive, we need to make sure we are not drawn in to telling people what to do. Even if an individual basically says ‘Tell me what to do and I will do it’ we need to resist this potential pitfall. What may well happen is that you tell someone what to do (possibly out of frustration because this individual is just not getting on despite several staff meetings, etc) and they go away and do exactly what you said. No professional judgement exercised, there will be no deviating from your directions and then when it goes wrong (and it will) it will be your fault.

You may also want to consider your responses to others so that you also remain in a rational state and can respond as an adult. Where individuals want to engage you in political or emotional responses, to stay in the rational you can respond with ‘This is not personal it is professional’ or ‘We need to evolve what we are doing to improve outcomes for our learners’. These responses help you focus on the professional rationale for introducing change in the first place.

At each stage we can ask individuals what the biggest challenge is for them. What is their understanding of what they need to do and what steps can they take in order to adapt to changes?

Coaching or mentoring

Throughout these conversations it will be helpful to explore what individuals can do, there will be options so it is worth exploring these and then getting a commitment to do something differently or try out a new approach. Make sure you agree a date to re-visit and come back round to what was agreed, progress made and what the next steps will be. At each stage we are exploring options but equally we are getting individuals to commit to what they are going to do.

It may be that some individuals might not respond to a particular coaching style so perhaps mentoring is more appropriate. Just be mindful not to wheel out all your personal stories and anecdotes as these could overwhelm and intimidate some as they may well feel that they are never going to be as good as you. It is worth highlighting that what you did was based on you and your experience at the time, it might also be helpful to highlight where things didn’t go to plan.

Considering failure

Whilst we may be positive individuals, we do need to remember that even if we have clearly articulated why change is happening, how it is happening and what will be happening, some individuals will still not be on board. Dan Pink in his book Drive explores this very dilemma. We perhaps need to consider what the carrot will be and ultimately what the stick will be. It may go against our own instincts, but we need to be prepared for some people continuing to resist change.

We are going to make mistakes along the way when we embrace change, we aren’t making them on purpose so rather than beat ourselves up let’s use them as points for reflection so that we can learn and move on.

Distributing leadership

In terms of distributing leadership we can make use and benefit from some individuals who are further along the change curve. We can get them to share their experiences so that individuals might pick up ideas as to what has worked for others and what some of the issues may have been in experimenting with new approaches. We might also be able to pair staff up so that there is peer support for change. This will need clear guidelines so that individuals are open to a variety of approaches and don’t just advocate one style which might be incompatible for others. This is an opportunity for staff development and an opportunity to develop leadership within your setting. After all, good leadership is about creating an environment where things can continue without your presence.

You can view the previous article on Change leadership here. https://www.dpmmagonline.co.uk/contents/item/152335-change-leadership

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