Leaders and managers: how far are you prepared to go to protect your “disruptive elements”.

Change is at the heart of business thinking and I don’t think there’s much need to elaborate on the subject. If everyone knows that the subject is anything but easy, there is one point that I would like to address more specifically: the support that those in charge of leading it receive internally.

Change is everywhere

There is no need to remind why change is a major concern: the external factors (technology, market, socio-political factors) and internal factors that impact the business are evolving faster and faster and more often than not in an unpredictable way, and the pandemic is there to remind us.

In this context, the business must of course adapt, but the word change is used as a generic term that covers a wide range of things. It covers minor adaptations as well as profound transformations or the development of new activities from scratch.

Change is never neutral

Reading the above, one might be tempted to say that there are small and big changes, which is not true. Seen from above, this may be the case, but at the employee level it is a different matter and sometimes even the opposite.

For example, developing a new activity can be a major change for the business, but for the employees it can be quite neutral if you start by building it in a silo isolated from the rest, especially when it has nothing to do with the historical core business. On the other hand, small changes that are insignificant at the business level can have a huge impact on a day-to-day basis because they affect the operational side of the business, because they call into question habits, personal statuses, etc.

To understand how a change, even the smallest one, can be perceived, it is necessary to look at the impact it can have not only from an organizational and operational point of view, but also from a human point of view on the employees, collectively or individually.

No matter how big or small a change is, it should never be taken lightly.

The change manager is a troublemaker

Let’s face it, when a person is in charge of leading change, he or she is often viewed with suspicion and mistrust by those who will be impacted by the change, and even by others. Once again, because habits and statuses are changed. From the employee’s point of view, it is not so much what is changing for the business but “what is going to happen to me personally” that takes precedence and, from this point of view, the change leader is all the more suspect as the subject is taken personally. Let’s not forget that everyone likes change…as long as it concerns others.

Simply put, the change manager changes operating methods, moves the organization, changes people’s roles and status, and even has an impact on their careers.

In reaction, the reflex of many people is to protect the status quo. Why? To protect their status, their place or that of someone they want to protect. Because change disrupts the operational mechanics and the manager who is asked to get more and more out of his staff sees it as a “hindrance to performance”.

So at some point, more or less quickly depending on whether the discontent affects people higher or lower in the hierarchy, the person managing the one in charge of the change will receive messages like ” Can’ t you tell him to leave us alone”, “Your guy is starting to disturb people, even important people”, “Listen, if you want my support on such and such a subject, put your project on the back burner”.

The change leader is seen as a disruptive element and the internal networks take action to stop the disruption.

I knew a person who proudly presented himself as a “corporate troublemaker“. He had a real knack for moving the lines on sensitive issues in a difficult organization, to say the least. But in fact, despite his undeniable talent, he owed his success to having the “right” people over him.

Managing a change leader is no easy task

The paradox is that a person at a high level has delegated the management of change to another person because he or she does not have the skills, does not have the time, because it is not his or her job, but the subject keeps coming back to him or her.

Assuming that the rightness of the change is granted, we are not in the field of pure business but of politics and interpersonal relationships. No frontal opposition but discussions in the corridors “between friends”…..

At this point there are not many options.

The “boss” can say that only the interest of the business is important and that he will support his subordinate whatever the cost, with the risk of creating enmity or even that the subject goes up one floor. Let’s not forget that if, in the business but also outside, many subjects of change stall, it is because of compromises between those who drive them and those who are subjected to them. “Do me a favor here and I’ll do you a favor there. Everyone gets away with it and nothing happens.

He can also go to his subordinate and tell him to stop making waves. This is a good approach if the latter does not put enough form and is clumsy in his speech, but it is a very effective way to demotivate him: he understands that he is in danger and will therefore make sure not to displease his superior and put both of them at odds with the rest of the organization.

I will always remember a scene that happened several years ago in a major transformation project in a large French business. At the end of the kick-off meeting where internal stakeholders and external providers were present, the project “sponsor” looked at the program manager in a very strong way and said “of course I don’t want any waves and I don’t want to hear about it“. After 3 months, the project was almost at a standstill and all “sensitive” actions were postponed indefinitely because “let’s take our time, it will be complicated”. He had understood that he would have no internal support so he started to protect himself.

When one does not protect the change leader, he protects himself

The fact is that anyone in their position needs a minimum of security and to feel supported, otherwise the person will do everything to avoid exposing themselves. This is true for everyone, and it’s harmful, but it’s even more so when it comes to change management. Human nature will push people to protect themselves…. unless others protect them. But who?

When you are the initiator or sponsor of a change project, be it small or large, you can (and should?) most often delegate its execution, but you still retain the responsibility. This means things in terms of results, but to achieve them, it means things in terms of means, with the main one being to allow people to do the work you have given them.

In this case, I saw two types of leaders. On the one hand, the leader who says “he’s doing this on my orders, it’s the business strategy and you’ll have to deal with it or go elsewhere” and the one who, as we’ve seen, says “keep it quiet, I don’t want any trouble”.

But when you can’t get into trouble or solve problems for others, you should not accept this type of position.

What are you ready to do to let me do my work?

I have had many opportunities to talk about this topic with people who have at one time or another had to deal with this type of situation as a sponsor/leader and as a pilot, or who have been interviewed or had such duties, and we have converged on three key points that may seem obvious but are worth remembering.

The first is that the role of the manager/leader/sponsor is to create a safe environment for the person leading the change to feel supported and to act. This includes taking on criticism, pressure and opening the umbrella for the other person to work with peace of mind.

The second is the corollary for the person who is entrusted with such a project: it is a question of knowing how far his manager is ready to go for him and to protect him from pressure. This is easier when you are already in the company and know the people, but more difficult when you are discovering a new business and a new environment. In this case, one often realizes that the mission is impossible only when it is too late.

And the third, regardless of the manager’s ability to protect, is the level of reporting. It may seem that the two go hand in hand, but this is not true. There are people at the top who don’t want to make enemies and play politics to advance their career more than business (which is why they got to that level anyway…) and there are people further down the hierarchy who are totally dedicated to the success of their team. But it still affects their ability to say “no” and stand up for themselves.

A friend of mine who had been asked to lead an ambitious internal transformation project saw, during the interviews, that he would report to a manager who was under a program director, who was himself under an HR director who was not a member of the Executive Committee. Given the sensitive nature of the mission, he declined, thinking that at the first problem he would be left alone in the middle of a minefield because too many people had the power to put obstacles in his way at a high level.

And by the way…my “corporate troublemaker”‘s journey in his business became very difficult and finally came to a halt the day his manager (although a fairly high level executive) was sidelined…. And since then, his ex-business has been mired in the problems of change.


In a business, the change manager is not a brilliant soloist or a sniper. They need resources but also support that gives them a certain psychological security in order to move forward. This requires the unfailing support of his hierarchy which, if it delegates the execution of the plan, cannot delegate its responsibility and must assume its sponsorship.

Image : Protective leader by PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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