Leading People through Major Change – working with the grain of human nature 

By Anthony Greenfield, Associate, Global PMI Partners UK 

To an average employee the thought of major change such as an organisational restructure is a daunting prospect. In conjures up a mind-boggling level of change involving an extended period of turmoil and uncertainty. It is in such times that effective leadership is at its most essential. 

It is tempting to offer you ‘The Top 10 Tips for leading your people successfully through major change.’  However, I hope to offer you something more valuable – the underpinning principles for leading people through successful change. Armed with these you will have the rationale and motivation to take the necessary actions to keep your people onboard with change. The principles also provide you with the means to tailor your approach to the specific needs and circumstances of your business. 

The key to leading people through organisational change lies in human psychology. Whilst companies and their cultures differ widely, the basic human needs that drive our behaviours have remained constant for millennia. Our ability to tap into these needs is the difference between success and failure as a leader. Never do these needs come into sharper focus than during times of major change. 

Our response to a given change will vary dramatically depending on how we experience it and how we are led through it. For instance, a far-reaching change imposed on us with no pre-warning or discussion by a distant authority with a history of failed change is likely to meet with heavy resistance. I presented such a scenario to a group of NHS doctors at a seminar on change and asked them how they felt about it. One senior doctor simply said she would delete the email and carry on as normal! 

So, what are these principles that make the difference between success and failure? They arise from five specific human needs. Meeting these needs generates support for change. Not meeting them triggers resistance. They are our need for certainty, purpose, control, connection, and success (known collectively as ‘The 5 Forces of Change’). It is the job of leaders to create the conditions in which these five needs are met throughout a major change.  

Amidst all the effort required to bring about major change it is tempting for leaders to hope that their people will simply fall into line with what needs to be achieved. Unfortunately, the statistics around organisational change make for grim reading. The Gartner Group 2019 report ‘Changing Change Management’ found that 50% of all organisation changes were deemed to be clear failures, 34% were successes, and 16% produced mixed results. The (international) Benchmarking Report on Organization Change from Prosci* identified the top two ‘Greatest Obstacles to Success’ as ‘Employee Resistance’ and ‘Middle Manager Resistance.’ 

*The world’s leading research group for change management. 

The 5 Forces of Change

The 5 Forces of Change is a people-centred approach to leading change developed in response to wide-ranging research and practical experience. Working to meet each of the 5 Forces of Change avoids the anxiety, frustration, and stress that triggers resistance. This in turn boosts ownership for change among managers and employees increasing success rates and maximising the benefits delivered.



  1. CERTAINTYour need for stability and predictability 

Leadership Challenge: How to make people feel more certain during major change 

As anyone who lived through the Covid pandemic will testify, a prolonged period of uncertainty is stressful. Not knowing when you will be able to leave you home, meet loved ones or re-open your business took a toll on people. 

Any significant organisational change generates a level of uncertainty. This can be exacerbated by a reluctance to spell out the details for fear of upsetting people. This in turn creates an information vacuum into which pours all manner of misinformation making it harder to recover the situation when people lose confidence and become wary of the whole process.  

Open, honest communication and dialogue discussion helps sort facts from fiction and builds trust in leaders to make change work. 

Communication is just one way to build certainty. If we think about successful leaders, especially those who have led during times of turmoil and change, we recognise other qualities and behaviours that create certainty. These include clarity of vision, confidence that difficulties will be overcome, commitment to the cause, and being a role model for the future they are championing. See the table below listing ‘Actions Generating Support for Change’. 

Effective leadership does not begin and end with executives. Middle Managers and Supervisors can make or break change. So, a top priority is to provide them with the information, understanding, tools and skills they need to feel confident enough to build certainty within their own teams.  



by meeting people’s psychological needs 


2. PURPOSE our need for a sense of purpose

Leadership Challenge: Inspiring people with a strong rationale and vision for change.

I consulted to a university that had been formed four years previously by the merger of two academic institutions. The change had not gone according to plan. As one senior academic explained, ‘mentally we remain two separate organisations,’ so many of the hoped for benefits of the merger were being squandered. One of the major barriers to success was the lack of a clear, unifying vision for the new university.

When postmen and postwomen at Royal Mail were asked to transform how they worked without being given a clear rationale for the change there was uproar and widespread non-compliance. The first stage in turning the situation around was to engage ‘posties’ in exploring the ‘big picture’ context for the change. Once they’d had a chance to explore the rationale for change (the shift from delivering letters to delivering parcels, and the changing expectations of their customers) they had taken the first big step towards engaging positively with change.

Successful leaders help people appreciate the forces at work that necessitate change while also championing a clear and inspiring vision for change. Alongside this they help people appreciate the benefits to them, their colleagues, their customers, and their organisation. See the table listing ‘Actions Generating Support for Change.’

3. CONTROL – our need for a sense of control over the things that affect us

Leadership Challenge: Maximising people’s feelings of control over change.

Anyone who has been led by a micro-manager knows what it’s like to lack control at work. Many people quit their jobs because of such experiences. Anyone who follows the news will be familiar with stories of people protesting lack of consultation over decisions made by local government. Lack of control over things that affect us inside or outside of work can trigger strong emotions. This leads to negative reactions like open opposition, limited cooperation or simply smiling and nodding and then doing nothing.

A corporate transaction, such as a merger, is planned and negotiated at boardroom level. It is a confidential business and only communicated widely once the deal is done. From the perspective of a manager or employee it will inevitably feel like something imposed on them by the big bosses. How can we possibly give them a sense of control in this situation?

As soon as a deal is done there needs to be a rapid change of gear. Secrecy and control need to be replaced by open communication and engagement. Managers must be brought on board swiftly. Not just through communication but by involving them in shaping and leading the implementation of change, so they feel a level of control over the process. Equally, employees need clear open communication (good and bad news) and the chance to use their deep understanding of day-to-day operations and customer interactions to work with their managers to make the change happen in their part of the business.

Key to giving people a sense of control is dialogue – group discussions amongst managers and employees that allow them to reach their own conclusions about all aspects of the change (see Royal Mail example above). See the table listing ‘Actions Generating Support for Change.’

4. CONNECTION – our need to stay connected to people, habits, ideas, and things

Leadership Challenge: Help people replace old habits, routines, relationships and things with new ones.

Letting go of old habits and routines is one of the main barriers to embedding change and making it stick. In the case of a corporate transaction, people are often faced with major changes in working conditions and team structures, as well as having to give up cherished habits and routines. Employees of an acquired company may even struggle with a loss of identity as the organisation’s heritage and name disappears.

The process of helping people let go of old ways of working and embrace new ones does not require a PhD in psychology. There are several straightforward and effective tools that can be used facilitate the process as listed in the table called ‘Actions Generating Support for Change’.

An in-depth description of each one can be found in my book ‘The 5 Forces of Change’, but here is a brief overview of just one of them. The Lose-Keep-Gain Grid is a simple technique that helps people to work together to express their hopes and fears about a specific change. This allows people to get concerns out on the table and to create mitigation plans whilst also focusing on the positives of change and the things that will remain unchanged.

Each recommended tool is designed to help people to shift their thinking and to let go of ingrained behaviours in favour of new more beneficial ones.

5. SUCCESS – our need to succeed

Leadership Challenge: Enable people to climb the learning curve and avoid slipping back into old ways of working.

Anyone who has introduced change at work knows that performance often gets worse before it gets better. Just ask people who travelled through Terminal 5 at London Heathrow when it opened!

In times of change, when people already feel uncertain, they find themselves grappling with new teams, new structures, and new ways of working. No wonder there is a strong temptation to revert to tried and trusted methods. One example of backsliding post implementation involved employees entering data onto a new IT system whilst continuing to enter the same information onto spreadsheets due to mistrust of the new system.

To combat such problems, leaders need to nurture success by spelling out expectations and training people to succeed. But it is when people put new methods into practice that they are most likely to revert to old approaches, especially as performance often gets worse before it gets better. This is when support and encouragement are vital, making it ok to try new methods and fail (at least to begin with) but not ok not to try. It is also about locking change into place by aligning reward and recognition to new ways of working and celebrating early successes. Finally, it is about fixing teething problems swiftly and transparently, something that would have removed the temptation to run spreadsheets in parallel with the new IT system in the earlier example. See the table listing ‘Actions Generating Support for Change.’


In summary, working against the grain of human nature risks triggering resistance and undermining organisational change. On the other hand, leaders who harness each of the 5 Forces of Change make life easier for all involved, eliminate resistance, and greatly enhance the chances of delivering sustained benefits.

Anthony Greenfield is an Organisational Change Capability Builder, Coach, Author, Consultant, and University Lecturer. With over 30 years of experience, Anthony specialises in guiding organisations through substantial change. From Jaguar Land Rover to Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, Anthony’s expertise spans diverse sectors. Currently serving on the Associate Faculty at Leeds University Business School and as a visiting lecturer at Bayes Business School, City University, London, Anthony bridges academic insights with real-world application. His flagship training course, “Leading Successful Change,” reflects his commitment to dispelling resistance and fostering organisational agility. The course, grounded in his books ‘The 5 Forces of Change’ and ‘5 Tales of Change,’ emphasises practical psychology in driving people-centred change. Reviews describe his approach as a “masterclass on the competencies required to achieve effective organizational change.” Anthony has dedicated his career to empowering leaders, managers, and individuals to navigate change successfully.

For more details read ‘The 5 Forces of Change: a blueprint for leading successful change’ by Dr Anthony Greenfield available at www.5forcesofchange.com and via Amazon.
















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