Key Factors in Leading Effective Change – Un-Belonging Yourself and Your People…

Imagine running a meeting for all of your employees where you need to share a major decision about how your business operates (the business that everyone understands and works happily within), which after careful consideration, needs to change. Typically, such change and statements will be backed up by supporting information that shows that the model isn’t working well in a rapidly changing market – it could go as far as saying the current model is ‘dead’.

Inevitably you will get a mixed reaction from the team who are listening. These reactions will range from curious interest to mild and more severe shock. Questions arise like – “What do you mean it’s dead?’’ ‘’Who do we interface with now?’’ ‘’You’re disconnecting us from each other!’’ ‘’What will that mean for our roles?”

The post pandemic economic climate, not helped by international conflict, suggests that many executives will find themselves in restructuring situations over the next 6 to 12 months. The fact is very clear that organisations will continue to face disruptive, complex, and (probably at least in part) painful change. But has this turbulent era taught us anything about how such change should be led?

It is true that most change management has shifted from a very simplistic top-down, “create a vision, change the structure, roll out the new programme, and get buy-in” approach to more emergent, empowered, and purpose-led approaches. Despite this positive change in approach leading change is still a struggle — and sadly the rate of failure for transformation projects remains very high. Even armed with the new agile/ flexible methods, many business leaders wish that their change efforts could go faster, encounter less resistance and produce more original and sustainable outcomes. What is missing?

Recent research has shown that the force that has the greatest impact on change outcomes is our primary need to belong.

While “belonging” in the sense of diversity, equity, and inclusion context — in which each individual is invited to be fully themselves in league with others – is essential to making change happen, in the context of recent research, “belonging” refers to the survival-based belonging that enables any human infant to make it to adulthood and any human adult to fully function in settings they give loyalty to and receive identity from. The fact is that change will always threaten this kind of belonging and challenge its dearly held loyalties.

What works then and makes change more successful? Leaders should pay attention to people’s need to belong. But what does such attention mean? It works in two ways. On the one hand, take great care and time to make others feel secure, involved, and attached to meaningful work – thinking “in this transformation, I’ll ensure that no one gets left behind,” and “you are important to me – and I need you in order to make this work”. Conversely, leading this way also recognises that change requires “un-belonging,” which means two things:

  • Building others’ ability and capacity to detach from past loyalties (for example to new ways of working, new team configurations, from assumptions that don’t support the new approach).
  • Being able to stand at a distance from any strong fixed belief group in order to create an environment where novel solutions can emerge.

The recognition here is that excessive belonging impedes new futures and therefore there needs to be a balanced approach.

So, the leader must encourage this sense of belonging while they must foster un-belonging by unhooking people sensitively yet firmly from their existing setup, while resisting any temptation to side with fixed points of view that the leader used to hold dear themselves. At times this can feel as strong as betrayal!

So how, exactly, can change leaders walk this belonging/un-belonging tight rope and skilfully attend to people’s most primal need to feel secure in disruptive scenarios? How can they foster both loyalty and the capacity to walk away from what no longer serves? Here are four tactics:

  1. Be aware of your own emotions.

Look inside yourself and realise that you, too, are feeling a little upset about having to give up a model that had worked well for you. Your own sense of ‘belonging’ is being threatened. This will impact your ability to move from reactive impulse (“I’m betraying my people’s trust!”) to the intentional and creative response (“This is what I know is needed to ensure our future”).

This disruption in your head will influence executive function. Your capacity to make decisions, process information, and plan. That’s why it’s vital for leaders to master the skill of “being before doing” by tuning into and regulating one’s own mental and emotional reactions to experiences. When we intentionally bring our attention to the present moment, we increase our awareness of all that is going on in and around us without immediate judgement. This preserves our thinking and decision-making abilities, stops our brains from reacting impulsively, and opens the opportunity to assess different options.

  1. Discover what people are seeking to preserve — and why.

Look for the symptoms of deeper issues. Listen closely to the team. They will likely present all of the good stuff they have been doing, how they’re working, all their successes. The underlying message they are giving is ‘we’re a really neat little unit- don’t break us up.’” This is why people can rarely come up with an alternative organisational design – they are almost as attached to their old teams as they are to family and breaking this up seemed too painful.

Look beyond what seems like resistance to or an inability to change and perceive what people value and protect. It will enable you to address and challenge deep loyalties with insight and respect.

  1. Lead difficult conversations.

Talk to your people openly and ask ‘’why don’t we have a conversation about why you feel uncomfortable about being broken up?” This is a very powerful intervention that enables people to see their loyalty for what it is – a sentiment that will impede the company’s successful step into a more viable, product-based, global organisation. Despite the difficulty of the conversation, once these attachments are named, the team will feel able to “un-belong” and move into a different future. Dealing with this well gets energy and enthusiasm. People will settle in their new space and things will really get going. They move from their old roles into the new roles and then they will start working out what stuff gets done and where in the ‘’new world their role fits.” Establishing the truth in what is really causing their resistance has set them free.

To help your team see not only what needs to change, but why it needs to change, you have to lead conversations that explore their areas of discomfort and help them see that as something that naturally comes with change.

  1. Consider both the prize and the price of change.

No big change comes without a cost. Because people are human, leaders tend to overestimate the benefits and downplay the costs. When you name and work with both, you can build true belonging, not false loyalty.

By setting the rationale for the organisational redesign and its impact on the whole business and admitting (to a degree) your sense of loss and bitterness, you can enable the team to see that while for them it meant losing valued, close connections, their sacrifice would benefit the business as a whole.

Attending to un-belonging — both your own as well as your employees’ — is a key element of successfully effecting and overseeing change. This will be a critical skill in the coming months as the rapidly changing global and national environment forces businesses to adapt.

If you need some help to effect successful change, get in touch with us at or call us on 0116 232 5231.

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The Tinderbox Team