Managing Change: The Impact of Role Models

There are a lot of factors that contribute to successful change in an organization. Research tells us that consistent role models are one of the four conditions for changing mindsets. There are a number of potential role models in any organization. Those we think of most readily are the traditional leaders – the CEO, other executives, managers and supervisors. These are the people expected to provide leadership; whose job it is to mentor and set an example.

Flickr/Photos by Ron Sombilon Gallery

Leaders as Role Models

According to the Prosci research study, Best Practices in Change Management, one of the most important contributors to a successful change project is effective executive sponsorship. When they visibly and consistently support a change initiative, executive sponsors become highly effective role models for everyone in the organization. Managers who “walk the talk” by supporting the change both publicly and privately, also has substantial influence on the way employees react to change. Supervisors, who remain accessible and responsive throughout the change process, providing both guidance and support, are strong role models as well.

Change in an organization is most challenging when it requires people to change the way they do things: in other words, the change involves behavioral change. The impact of positive reinforcement on behavioral change is widely known. Perhaps less obvious is the impact of role models, especially peer role models.

Self-Selected Role Models

While leaders in an organization are role models by virtue of their function, people will also look to and model their behavior on self-selected role models. And people in different areas of an organization will choose different role models, depending upon what traits, experience and skills they value and the degree of influence an individual has on his or her peer group.

One of the challenges facing management when a significant change is imminent is identifying the key role models in various departments and at various levels in the organization. Experienced change agents will recognize the value of recruiting these peer role models and will actively solicit their support for the change initiative. Experienced change agents know that these self-selected role models are often more influential than the hierarchical role models, making their support critical to the success of the change project.

Some important facts to remember about role models and change:

  1. Role models contribute significantly to behavioral change.
  2. Leaders in an organization are role models by default (positive or negative!).
  3. Effective executive sponsorship is a critical factor in successfully managing change.
  4. Self-selected role models are often more influential than leadership.
  5. All role models at all levels of the organization must speak to and model desired behaviors consistently to bring about the desired change

Role models at all levels have the ability to scupper your change initiative from the start, or to carry you organization forward on a wave of transformative change. Your job is to understand who must be, who will be, and who could be your most influential role models, and engage them in the change process early and often.

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