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Author: Kimberlee Williams

Closing the Confidence Gap in Change Leadership

Without a doubt, how well we handle change plays a large role in determining our success in life. The same is true for companies—those that are more agile at managing change in their organizations can drive better performance.

Most of us know this intuitively—social media forums in project management, IT leadership, and business analysis continuously buzz about how leaders can amp up business results through change. Whether designing and implementing new solutions, improving business processes, stretching business unit targets, or managing people, we all play a role in helping our companies innovate and grow. In fact, a recent survey of nearly 700 business professionals revealed that 73% agree leading change is an important part of their job.
Yet when the same professionals were asked about which organizational change challenges they feel least confident addressing, an unexpected pattern emerges. (See Figure below.) While we might expect to see common change challenges such as resource allocation, risk management, decision making, and sponsor alignment topping the list of areas that cause the greatest stumbling blocks, these actually fall near the bottom of the list. Despite the fact that these challenges are among the most cited contributors to failed projects, most professionals express surprising confidence about managing these kinds of tactical and routine elements in relation to change initiatives.

The Gap 

So which kinds of change challenges do professionals find toughest to deal with, causing the greatest lack of confidence? The ones that emerged at the top of the list were fundamentally more strategic and involved personal interaction. Around 40 percent listed “resistance from people who need to change” and “navigating the political landscape” among their top five stumbling blocks, and around 30 percent cited “difficult conversations, coaching, or feedback to senior leaders” and “addressing team dysfunction.” “Dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty” rounded out the top five.

This “confidence gap” in change leadership reflects a theme of discomfort with the personal engagement, influence, and risk taking needed to resolve challenging change issues. These problem areas actually fall in the realm of strategic change leadership skills, not tactical change management skills.

The Causes 

There are likely several contributing factors to the change leadership gap:

  • The last few years have seen a surge in popularity, availability, and use of change management techniques (largely centered on templates and tools). These techniques are quick and easy to use—and contribute to better skills and confidence in more tactical arenas—but leave the deeper strategic arenas untouched.
  • Business professionals’ areas of least confidence are root causes of many other symptoms; by their nature, these are human elements that are more complex and difficult to address. For example, initiating difficult conversations and taking the bold steps that may be required to resolve political issues and workplace dysfunction can involve personal and professional risk.
  • Developing a base of change leadership skills in an organization is often not easily accessible or affordable. Highly capable consultants are often hired to introduce a methodology and quarterback conversations with senior executives to resolve change challenges—but the sensitive nature of those discussions means that most professionals won’t have access to listen in and be coached on how to conduct such conversations on their own. In addition, the cost of the type of extended arrangement necessary to facilitate knowledge transfer to project teams typically means tactical tools and templates from the methodology are left behind, but strategic change leadership skills are never institutionalized.
  • Acquiring change leadership skills is not convenient for busy professionals. While our survey reveals most professionals do possess the motivation to address their strategic change leadership skills, they indicate time is the primary barrier to addressing their challenges. Many prefer to learn in workshops or hands-on settings yet are unable to take the time to do so. Internal company programs frequently don’t meet their needs, but few have explored online options, even though money to purchase training is not an obstacle in the vast majority of cases.

The Impacts

The net effect of the change leadership confidence gap is that important changes may fail to be implemented because the level of difficulty to engage resistance, coach difficult leaders, overcome uncertainty, or address team dysfunction exceeds the skill level (or risk tolerance) of the professionals who are trying to lead organizational change. As a result, ideas stall, products and services languish, projects derail, customers and employees suffer, and the entire organization underperforms against its business targets. 

The gap could also explain, at least in part, why 70% project failure rates haven’t improved materially in years. The energizing process of innovation gives way to the frustrations of missed execution unless there are qualified and motivated professionals who remove the formidable human barriers to successful execution.

From a personal perspective, professionals who limit themselves to the tactics of managing or reacting to change—rather than initiating and accelerating it—may find that their career path takes them off course from gratifying work, high-performing colleagues, and financial rewards.

Business professionals and the organizations in which they work are poised on the brink of transition and opportunity. Yet while many courageously assume responsibility for driving change, challenges lie ahead that will impede company and personal growth unless leaders employ new approaches to break through the complex human barriers of resistance, politics, and team dysfunction.

The Shift

Business professionals who are leading change have the power to accelerate important strategic shifts that can positively impact their companies, and perhaps the world. Companies must help change leaders find ways to address their own strategic change leadership skills to best overcome these challenges. Leaders will derive significant value from adopting methods that help them to quickly and objectively assess, evaluate, and improve successful program implementation while simultaneously building their own change leadership skills.

Since traditional learning settings are failing to maximize the use of change leaders’ time, alternate sources, such as online learning resources and coaching, may allow greater flexibility and convenience. Turning to options like these may help break the logjam, improving project failure rates and driving better personal and company performance.

It’s time to build upon the strong foundation of basic change management and help professionals across all disciplines build better change leadership skills.

What do you think? 

Check out my next post where I’ll share “The 7 Strategic Change Skills Every Professional Must Have: How Do You Stack Up?”

In the meantime, learn more about what your peers say about change: their frame of mind, confidence in career track, types and amount of training they take, what they pay for training, and their priority initiatives. Download your free, no-strings copy of the 22-page 2012 Change Leadership Report at


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