Secret Weapon for Change Management? Look to Your Individual Contributors

Insights | 01 August 2018

Too often, discussions around change management centre on top-down people management — what do leaders need to say and do for effective change management to stick?

But what about individual contributors? Despite not having direct reports, these workers, often found at the senior level and with high levels of subject-matter expertise, are a critical spoke in making the wheels of change turn, especially when it comes to transformational change[1].

Here are four ways you can engage individual contributors and uncover powerful allies for your change agenda:

  1. Understand, first, the power of the individual contributor
    One of the dominant paths to promotion is to become a people manager within an organisation. This, however, is not the preferred career trajectory for everyone. What this does mean is that there are plenty of influential leaders throughout organisations, even though they will not seek out direct reports. If you are unsure of who these individuals may be, simply ask your colleagues “If I wasn’t around, who would you go to outside our team for help on the projects we are working on?” Or, “If you had to build an all-star team from different departments to get a major project for the CEO done quickly, who would make the cut?” These are the folks people lean on every day to get things done. If they haven’t embraced the need for change, others won’t either.
  2. Identify the ‘givers’
    These are generous brokers of time and attention in any organisation, the quiet influencers who command respect without the need for formal rank or a team full of direct reports. The concept of “givers” within the corporate context was developed by the popular Wharton School of Business professor and author Adam Grant[2] to describe those who give without expecting anything in return. This is compared with “takers” (what’s in it for me?) and “matchers” (quid pro quo). Interestingly, Grant believes powerful givers can even be those “disagreeable”[3] types, which traditional change management might be too quick to label as blockers or holdouts. Don’t make this mistake. “Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organisations, because they’re the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear.”
  3. Learn from different styles of communication
    One thing to remember about individual contributors is that they are, well, individuals. There are likely to be many different communication styles. Leverage this diversity to expand and amplify your reach as a leader, especially around a change agenda. Broadening your communication style can reap many dividends. If you are the type of leader who loves commanding a room but stalls a bit during 1-to-1s, get to know some respected individual contributors and observe their 1-to-1 communication style. Are they master listeners? Do they tend to coach or command?
  4. Don’t assume resistance
    The highest performers among individual contributors can be quick to embrace change, especially if leadership is promoted at all levels. An employee engagement framework developed by the University of Southern Queensland[4] ensures that leadership isn’t about title, instead it is embedded in how each person conducts their work. Here’s one compelling entry: “Leading Self: The basis of all effective leadership. It includes knowing one’s self and encompasses all individual contributors. Individual contributors are typically members of teams. This level also encompasses what it means to be an effective follower, in service and support to others.” The university goes on to detail many ways individual contributors can contribute their leadership, including permission to “constructively question and challenge the way things have always been done to identify opportunities for improvement.” Creating conversations around self-leadership can be a vital part of transformation and change management.

In all, change is difficult no matter who you are — manager, individual contributor, even CEO. And whether the need for change is prompted by a clear-eyed assessment around a future risk, or driven by current failures that require immediate intervention, transformation will always rise or fall based on the actions (or inactions) of individuals.

By expanding your notion of leadership to move beyond just anointed people managers, you can reach deeper and more meaningfully into your company or firm’s true “org” chart. This unpublished web of relationships, once understood, may be the best (not-so) “secret” weapon of them all.

Want to know more about Organisational Change Management? Call us today on 1300 70 13 14.

[1] /deliver/transformation-programme-management-office




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