Navigating the Politics and Emotions of Change

Even the most sensible change initiatives can flounder if emotions and political dynamics within an organization are ignored. But a five-step process can proactively address these “softer” factors — and enable successful change.

In today’s fast-paced economy, leaders know that their organization’s success may be tightly linked to its ability to change and change again — and again. Most executives have a portfolio of tools that they use for developing their strategic plans, structure, metrics and other “hard aspects” of change. However, their approach to tackling the “softer side of change” and, more specifically, navigating the politics and emotions associated with change, is often more unstructured.

Yet left unattended, skepticism, fear and panic can wreak havoc on any change process. These types of feelings can create resistance, disengagement, distraction and burnout. Innovative ideas may get suffocated, time and energy wasted, and change goals sacrificed to short-term self-interest. Performance may also drop as exasperated high-performing employees leave for calmer seas. As consultants, called in afterward to clean up the wreckage, we often hear things like:

“It seemed like the new sustainability initiative was ready to be launched and that we would roll it out full steam ahead. Then there was push-back from the suppliers and the staff lost faith that it would ever work.”

“The merger integration never really happened. Both companies held onto their ways of doing things, and politics paralyzed the process. All the best talent bailed and the value of the company tanked.”

“Fear of this technology switchover was rampant, and before we knew it, the whole thing ground to a halt.”1

After listening to dozens of similar stories, we began to recognize an underlying pattern in these failures. Working with executives both as consultants and in more than 400 change projects conducted as part of the Kellogg/Schulich Executive MBA program, we developed a practical approach for systematically navigating and leveraging the politics and emotions that naturally arise in every major change. (See “About the Research.”)

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1. These three quotations were adapted from actual comments; they were edited to preserve the anonymity of the individuals and their organizations.

2. E.M. Rogers, “Diffusion of Innovations” (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1962).

3. M. Gladwell, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” (New York: Time Warner Book Group, 2002).

i. Our thanks to Lisa Hillenbrand, Harley Procter Director of Global Marketing, and the Brand Building Learning Organization at Procter & Gamble for inspiring the passion meter concept.


The authors are deeply thankful to participants in the Kellogg/Schulich Executive MBA program for their openness to testing the framework in this article and their terrific input and feedback. They are also grateful to Lisa Hillenbrand and Ed Freeman for their comments and insights on this work. Auster and Hillenbrand are writing a book called “Stragility,” which elaborates on this approach and places it within a strategic change framework.

9 Comments On: Navigating the Politics and Emotions of Change

  • haykantonyan | June 19, 2013

    An interesting perspective into change management. Thanks to authors.

  • haykantonyan | June 19, 2013

    And thanks to MIT Sloan Management Review too.

  • | June 22, 2013

    Very enlightening, interesting and informative research/ article. I use stakeholder management planning in developing project management plans and there are strong parallels between the 2 approaches. I find this article reinforces the concepts and benefits from both approaches

  • Viswanath Ch V K | June 24, 2013

    stunning material… being a change manager myself in implementing SAP ERP in the organization.. did go thru this phenomena although unknowingly handled the emotions and politics of change resistors … a very useful insight though

  • sergej lugovic | June 28, 2013

    Interesting and very useful 5 steps approach. Reading the Emotions in title I was expecting that article adress more deeply emotions instead of relationship. Recently, researching extensively emotions in organisation, found out that things such as expectations and responsibility, have almost equal meaning – but they produce different emotions. Expectations produce negative ones, while responsibility produce positive ones. Its lot of similar situations, which depending how they are presented, or put into the context, and perceived by humans – produce different emotions. Change is a constant in today business, and being it constant, it should become objective, as a parking in front of the office. So we have to focus more into how people will emotionally react to parking, instead on parking by itself. And people in roles of managing organisations, should along managing relations address context in which ongoing processes or events produce different emotions in people minds, constructing attitude which result in particular behavior (Theory of Reasoned Action) of those people. At the same time managers should be capable to distinguish when the clash of idea is going and when the clash of personality is going, and act accordingly. For example, if negative sceptic is require new skills to resist change – objectively he is working extra hours for company cause of his beliefs – and his emotions are transfered into tangible working hours, but questions is how this working hours are related to company performance ? And how is responsible for that performance. One who follow the emotions and beliefs, or one who was thinking more about parking, then of about what emotions this parking will produce to employees. In recent article in Wired, C. Thompson ( conclude it “The smartest organizations will be the ones that understand these subtleties and flow with them. The only way to win this culture war is not to play.” In overall this is amazing field, and personally find it very encouraging and motivating for research, and thnx to Sloan review and authors of article for bringing emotions into business magazines. In these hard days of ruined and cold global economy we need something warm to heat us up, and emotions are for sure one of those things.
    Kind regards
    Sergej Lugovic

  • Patricia Leahy | July 11, 2013

    This is a solid article. I’d only like to add two points underscoring the fact that the entire workforce needs to told of the anticipated change and that leadership “enrolls” them in the process. But first leadership must always remembr that change initially and always includes fear. Recognizing that leaders can identify and provide specific examples of solutions to the fears the workforce will have. Second there needs to be a communication strategy and process that keeps the workforce/stakeholders informed of the new direction/changes and how management intends to minimize the upset to them; what the advantage will be for them; and explicit recognition of a learning curve to integrate the change into their work.

  • Mike Bowes | August 2, 2013

    Excellent article.
    I like to group the ‘challengers’ into Skeptics and Cynics. Many of the strategies outlined here are very useful. The skeptics and cynics have to have separate strategies.
    In terms of ‘skeptics’ it’s basically a lack of information and inclusion. Take the time to listen to their concerns, provide any additional information, include them in ‘solutions’ – co-opt them. Often they take issues to the extreme and you have to work with them to make it work.
    With ‘cynics’ it’s primarily a matter of ‘trust’ – and you have to spend time building (or re-building) the trust. Be visible – be there to answer questions; be accepting, attempt to bring them into the process, don’t avoid them, address their issues (they may have very valid points – be prepared to meet their challenges); and make sure you keeping your commitments.
    Really like the focus that change is an ‘emotional issue’ – building emotional intelligence within your organization facilitates change!

  • derekw | January 17, 2014

    There is also a case on how sustainability thinking was injected into 27,000 employees dispersed in 1,300 locations in TD Bank. Five lessons was highlighted:

    Lesson 1: Think big, but use short-term wins to build momentum.
    Lesson 2: Recruit well-respected senior leaders who will be your base of support and trumpet your cause.
    Lesson 3: Know your audiences and approach them in targeted ways to reach their hearts and ask them to do a few specific green activities.
    Lesson 4: Define metrics that matter to measure performance and stimulate friendly competition.
    Lesson 5: Embed environment into the goals, processes, and culture that make your organization tick.

    Full case here:

  • Tim McCall | March 16, 2014

    On the subject of how to maintain high performance employees Forbes published a phenomenal article a couple years back with some useful advice for executives. I think the advice is applicable to the concerns raised in this article.

    1. Know Your Competitors
    2. Constantly Upgrade Yourself
    3. Invest in a Gen-Y Relationship
    4. Learn About The International Marketplace
    5. Achieve Opportunity Mastery In Your Work
    6. Write A Blog And Hold Yourself Accountable


    Tim McCall

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