How to Lead Organizational Change: The Key Role of Managers-EN

Picture of Alfred Maeso Aztarain

Alfred Maeso Aztarain

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“Organizational change is a dangerous journey.”

(The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook , 2015)

Dangerous because we are in a context of complexity and uncertainty. Because it involves people, and each of them will leave their own mark on it. And how does the “dangerous journey” begin? I find that it typically goes something like this:

  1. Someone in some organizational layer has an idea that involves change; that idea is shared and communicated until it eventually has enough buy-in. 
  2. The idea is invested in, and someone with sufficient responsibility is appointed to sponsor the initiative. 
  3. As the changes goes through successive stages and reaches each area of the organization, people look for the best way to adopt it by reconciling it with their own obligations and day-to-day activities (or BAU, Business as Usual).
  4. This goes on until the change is accepted and people have adapted their way of working to the proposed change. 
  5. Finally, with luck and a lot of effort, the change is fully adopted and makes the organization better.

It is important to note though that change is not successful until it is incorporated into the everyday activity of the organization.

Unfortunately, the journey doesn’t end here. We are in a context of constant change. Human beings, and organizations, live in a state of constant social, political, economic, and technological change. With this truth, the “dangerous journey” never ends; it is an endless cycle that we must continually adapt ourselves and our organizations to.

Constant adaption sounds hard, right? Fortunately, good management and shared leadership can play a crucial role in helping to lead organizational change. We need leaders at each level of the organization who speak the right language, who know how to appeal to the problems and difficulties that each area of the business experiences, and who know how to connect their people with everyone else.

For this article, I am going to focus on one of the essential elements in all successful changes: the key role of managers (senior managers and middle managers). These are decision-makers and/or team leaders who must guide and accompany their teams throughout the change. And then, I’ll give some recommendations for managers on how to generate productive energy for change in their organization.

The Key Role of Mangers

Edwards Deming smartly said,

“It is not enough for top management to commit themselves for life to quality and productivity. They must know what it is that they are committed to – that is, what they must do. These obligations cannot be delegated. Support is not enough; action is required.”

Managers cannot delegate their essential role in the change. It’s not enough just to support it; they have to lead it. Think about a boss who locks himself in their office and gives orders. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work anymore (and to be honest, I’m not sure it was ever really effective). This is not the type of manager we seek in an environment of constant change.

While the role of managers in change key, it is also very complicated. They must be able to combine their normal, day-to-day obligations (work often related to achieving of performance objectives and goals) with the organization’s need to change.

To complicate the matter more, consider that managers are also people (did you have any doubts about that?), and that they will also have go to through their own change curve. The change that managers must promote begins with themselves. If we want to create an environment in which change is the organizational constant, managers must change their way of doing management. Instead of “putting out fires” or “controlling work”, managers must maintain a holistic or systemic vision by working to nurture the environment. Today’s manager must be more farmer than firefighter or traffic cop.

The role of the manager as a role model will drive change in their teams far more than any other action.

Drive Organizational Change by Driving Organizational Energy

The journey of constant change requires a high level of organizational energy for change. This is the main responsibility of the manager.

There has to be energy for change in order to actually the change. But what does that mean? Think about it as the organization’s global state of mind in regard to assuming a new change. Management of Portfolios or MOP (AXELOS, 2011) defines it as “the extent to which an organization (or area or team) has mobilized its emotional, cognitive, and behavioral potential to pursue its objectives.”

Organizational energy will depend on many factors, including the external context (social, technological, political) in which we find ourselves and also internal factors such as the perceived intensity or workload and the feeling of the quality of our work.

organizational change

Work intensity can be high or low, and the perception of whether we work well or not can also be high or low. Based on these two axes, Bruch and Vogel identified four different states of organizational energy. (Note: I’ve describe them below in a general manner; however, there are many nuances to consider that may alter this explanation in some cases.)

  • State of Resigned Energy. When the intensity is low and the perceived quality is low, people adopt a resigned attitude. People have an attitude of “I do what you tell me; don’t ask me for more,” and “I’m not happy, but I’m not stressed either; hopefully the weekend will come soon.” Introducing changes in this state will be difficult, because the level of commitment and proactivity will be low, and they will need to be heavily supervised. I have some tips for this and overcoming Organizational Inertial in this blog post.
  • State of Comfortable Energy. When the intensity is low, but the perceived quality is high, people are comfortable. Work is not demanding for them, and their results are fine, so why change? It is innate that people will always prefer the status quo; any change will be perceived as the enemy.
  • State of Corrosive Energy. When intensity is high and quality is low, people will devote their energy to questioning decisions, looking for ways to do less work, or to deliver something quickly without quality just to check the box. Introducing changes in this state can be a ticking time bomb: “We already have enough work; don’t pile on.”
  • State of Productive Energy. Finally, if there is high intensity and the perceived quality is high, people will be engaged and proud of their work. They will actively seek changes that allow them to improve in their work.

From the viewpoint of constant change, the organization must ensure that energy is kept in a Productive State. It is the best foundation to build the competence of adaptation to change.

4 Cs of Organizational Energy

Building a constant state of Productive Energy starts with managers nurturing the system through ensuring these four sources of organizational energy are established and maintained: Connect, Content, Context, and Climate. 

organizational change


This source of energy refers to how people connect with each other, their values, ​​and their work for the overall purpose of the organization.

This function of liaison with the organizational strategy must be provided by the manager. They must be able to clearly convey the objectives and how they will help achieve the organizational purpose. For this you must ensure the following:

  • Traceability between objectives and teamwork. There must be a clear connection between the objectives we pursue as an organization and the work our teams do.
  • Proactive communication of the why. The manager must regularly and proactively provide communication to their teams regarding their progress in achieving the goals.
  • Collaboration on what and how. Collaboratively define the work to be done and how to do it.
  • Clarity and agreement on roles and relationships. The manager must ensure that each person understands their contribution to the collective success and what is expected of them. The manager shouldn’t demand these things; they should gain consensus and receive commitment from everyone. This will also help the team establish relationships and, more specifically, how to communicate and interact with each other and the manager.


The second source of organizational energy is work content, or how work stimulates people and provides them with a sense of accomplishment. The manager works in this sense to enhance people’s intrinsic motivation. That is, the internal motivation they have for doing satisfactory work. To do this you must:

  • Ensure technical competence. The manager must make sure that their team has the necessary competence (knowledge, expertise, skills) to carry out the job. You must foster an environment of continuous learning and collaborative work, and you must enable the necessary interactions to obtain the support and help your teams need.
  • Set limits, but challenge your people. In the role of liaison with the rest of the organization, the manager must clarify the limits of the work and which decisions are the teams’ responsibility and which aren’t. Put the focus on sharing, collaborating, and reusing successful processes to ensure the achievement of global objectives. Push people beyond their own limits by proposing challenges that involve personal growth.
  • Give autonomy and get out of the way. If the team has technical competence and clarity on goals and boundaries, the best thing a manager can do is step back and let them work.
  • Unlock structural impediments. The manager must be accessible when needed to make decisions that the team cannot make. There will always be impediments and obstacles that are beyond what the team can do. For example: decisions that an external person has to make, or dependencies on other teams’ work, or changing the way of working in a department or in the entire organization. The manager has to be available to help resolve these impediments.
  • Accept mistakes. An environment in which people are not afraid of making mistakes is an environment that enables innovation and continuous improvement. The manager can create this environment by encouraging experimentation and eliminating the culture of “find who’s to blame.”


The next source of organizational energy is Context. That is, how our way of working supports and enables people to do a good job. To do this, the manager must ensure the following:

  • Effective processes. The manager must ensure that the way of working in general (from production processes to reporting procedures, meetings, etc.) is consistent, transparent, adequate, objective, and fair – and perceived as such by their team.
  • Flexible and adaptable tools, suitable technical platform. The tools serve their function, they are aids and not brakes, and they adapt to the changing needs of the environment.
  • Space and time for individual and collective learning. The manager must create, defend, and protect spaces for their team’s learning and continuous improvement. That is the basis of innovation and constant adaptation to change.


The last source of organizational energy is Climate. How the organization helps people to grow and reach their full potential. The manager must contribute to creating the best possible climate by:

  • Implementing an objective, continuous, and adaptable recognition, incentive, and reward system. Measure both the contribution to the business and the customer, as well as the adoption of the desired practices and behaviors.
  • Providing and receiving continuous feedback. A manager must be open to constant conversation with the people on their team by not only providing and receiving valuable feedback, but also by acting on it.

Managers need to work towards providing these sources of energy to help increase the the organizational energy for change. I hope these recommendations will serve as a guide for managers to identify their areas for improvement and, thus, become a leader for change instead of a hinderance.


— Alfred

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Picture of Alfred Maeso Aztarain

Alfred Maeso Aztarain

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