Change Management Week

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Driving Big Changes from the Bottom Up and Top Down-EN

Picture of Alfred Maeso Aztarain

Alfred Maeso Aztarain

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I can’t tell you how many times in class I hear students say things like: “My boss should be in this training,” “My clients will not accept this,” or “My suppliers won’t work like that.” It is easy to feel like the people who could make a real change in the organization are never the ones who are attending training. 

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about Project Management, Business Analysis, Agile, or Gamification. The attendees see value in what we teach; they think it would be interesting and useful to incorporate it into their day-to-day life. However, it seems that they do not have enough capacity to introduce these changes without first getting their boss, clients, or suppliers to change. However, what boss will not be willing to listen to ideas that allow teams to achieve better results, that allow him to win the gold medal as a driver of successful transformations?

Driving Change from the Bottom Up

As Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This is the key. We all need to be invested in the organization. We need to see ourselves not as individuals just getting work done, but as part of a living organism contributing to the overall health and prosperity of the whole.

In my experience, many of the important changes that organizations undergo are driven from the bottom up. For example: say the concerns of a development team force them to propose a technological or even methodological change. They convince a middle manager to test the change in a limited pilot, whose results serve to convince the management committee that the change is needed. At this point, the change spreads from top to bottom (top-down) throughout the organization. 

Knowledge Workers Go

As knowledge workers, our duty is to contribute our knowledge to the improvement of our organization. According to Lean, there are no major or innovative changes that take place holed up in a cubicle. Innovation comes from being a collaborative workplace. It is a manager’s responsibility to be where the work occurs and to listen (Gemba – “go and see”). But for those of us who do the work, it is our responsibility to question everything, always look for new ways of doing our work better, keep up-to-date, train, and propose improvements. 

The biggest inhibitor of change in companies is the attitude of “We’ve always done it this way.” (Just ask Nokia or Kodak, two examples of poor adaptation to change.) The most important question we should never stop asking ourselves is WHY?” Why are we doing it like that? Is it the best way to do it? Could there be a better way?

Let’s compare this to boxing: there is always a champion, and the rest immediately become challengers. Our methods, our corporate processes, are the current champions, and each of us is a challenger. We have to challenge the champion, put it to the test to see what it’s made of, and if necessary, to replace it with a new champion. That is the essence of continuous improvement.

You are how change happens from the bottom-up.

Therefore, I turn to you. To those who attend trainings, are passionate about your work, and are eager to learn and to improve. To you, who see hope in the training sessions to solve the problems in your day-to-day professional life. I’d like to tell you something: go ahead! You can inspire your leadership!

The Flip Side: Driving Change from the Top Down

Everyone can drive big changes. True. Just as knowledge workers should strive to inspire leadership, leadership must do their part bycreating a culture of sustainable change. In the second half of this article, I want to talk about how leaders can help with organizational changes: specifically, how they can help motivate people to change so that they are successful in their efforts.

Learning Anxiety and Survival Anxiety 

Among many other interesting topics related to culture and Organizational Change Management, Edgar Schein talks about two types of anxiety as motivating factors of behavior that should be taken into consideration when we introduce changes that affect people’s work:

  • Learning Anxiety. This is what makes us act negatively in the face of changes, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the change and the person. It is produced by the feeling of incompetence due to the fact of having to “unlearn” what we already know how to do, acquire new knowledge, and then to apply it to our work. Fear of the new can threaten our self-esteem or even our own identity.
  • Survival Anxiety. You may know it as that horrible feeling in your gut that if you don’t change, the consequences, even though they might not be life or death, will impact you negatively. Our quest for survival even in the most difficult situations is inherent to the human condition. It acts, albeit painfully, as a catalyst and driver of change.

There are changes that, by definition, are more easily accepted, such as technological change (society, our environment, and our own reality push us in this direction). However, what happens when the improvement that drives the change is debatable, when do we not see the sense of going through the whole process of learning and assimilating the change?

Obviously, for changes to be successful, survival anxiety must be greater than learning anxiety. And leaders have a key role: either to increase survival anxiety, or to reduce learning anxiety.

How can survival anxiety be increased?

This is perhaps the easiest option, but not the most valuable in terms of generating active participation of the people involved. Schein says that we can work with the following factors:

  • Disconfirmation. Create the feeling that we cannot continue like this, that change is necessary and urgent. Perhaps because of the market or our competition, perhaps to qualify for growth opportunities… in short, the way we do things no longer serves us.
  • Creation of Guilt. If you don’t change, we can’t do it. Perhaps imposing punishments for not achieving objectives or even threatening jobs if we do not change.

Although sometimes we may have to utilize the techniques above, as leaders we should focus our influence on reducing learning anxiety. How? 

Create Psychological Safety

Develop and implement a “safety net” that minimizes the fear of failure. There are several practical steps we can take towards creating this safety net. We can invest in training (playful, participatory, adjusted to people’s availability). We can offer adequate mentoring and coaching to supplement the learning process.

And, most importantly, we can allow failure, accepting that failure is inherent in the transition process in a change. Some great starting points are:

  • Relaxing performance objectives during the transition time
  • Rewarding new ideas even if they are finally discarded
  • Visualizing the change as an opportunity for professional development

As leaders, we must be present, provide opportunities for conversation and feedback, and also allow ourselves to change things, accepting suggestions that help us all accept change. A simple way to start discovering ways to change is to design a simple feedback wall for your people to let you know what they like, what they don’t like, ideas they have, and questions they have.

The combination of bottom-up inspiration and an eagerness to make change happen with the top-down support and motivation that leadership can contribute is unstoppable. Let’s take advantage of changes and the opportunities they present for greater involvement and commitment.


— Alfred

Forma parte de la comunidad #AlwaysLearning

Sobre el autor

Picture of Alfred Maeso Aztarain

Alfred Maeso Aztarain

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