In Conclusion

3 Ways to Navigate the Politics of Change

Change management skills, such as navigating politics, are often overlooked but can be learned.


As learning leaders, we’re frequently at the center of major change in the organization. We create implementation strategies and learning plans to help people develop the necessary job-based skills needed to execute the changes. Then we watch the best strategies and plans get derailed by emotions, politics and burnout — all of which seem out of our control.

Enter change management skills, like the ability to sense and shift strategies, inspire and engage, and navigate politics. Change management skills are valuable, sustainable and often overlooked, but they can be learned. They greatly increase the chance that change efforts will succeed, and they offer competitive advantage as organizations grow and adapt to a relentlessly shifting external environment.

Navigating the politics of change is arguably the most difficult change management skill. But CLOs who excel at building change management capabilities offer value that every organization needs. We can help teams use political dynamics to increase engagement, passion and change effort success.

Here are three key steps to navigate politics:

  1. Map the political landscape.

Identify which groups are potential supporters and promoters, which are more likely to be skeptical, and which will be most difficult to convince. Within these groups, which individuals are the opinion leaders? These key influencers have the resources, skills or social networks needed to win over the hearts and minds in the larger group. To find influencers in each group, look for the go-to people whose opinions can sway others. They may have formal power, or their pull may stem from their expertise or their networks.

  1. Understand magnet and fear factors.

Do sensing interviews with people from a variety of groups and points of view. Map magnet factors — things likely to excite people and pull people toward the change. Also, map fear factors that may cause resistance with potential action steps to address them. Mapping skeptics fear factors might look like this:

Fear factor: “Our team has brilliant ideas for solving these issues, but we’re afraid of the consequences if it doesn’t exactly work.”

Action step: Encourage prototyping and learning. Fail fast and cheap, and learn from the experience.

Fear factor: “Nobody talked with us about this. Before this rolls forward, they need to understand all the things that have to be in place for it to work here.”

Action step: Preemptively gather input and ideas on how to integrate new changes. Enroll a rep from this stakeholder group so they can shape the “what” and the “how” from the start.

Fear factor: “This change is too risky and too costly.”

Action step: Explore ways to minimize risk and reduce cost. Demonstrate long-run benefits associated with the change.

  1. Engage the skeptics.

Most leaders are inclined to pay attention to the supporters and ignore or shut down skeptics. But many may be “positive skeptics.” They believe the change has flaws that need to be addressed.

Engaging these skeptics has benefits. First, they can be catalysts to rethink different aspects of the change, make it more successful, and save your team months of rework by catching flaws early.

Second, engaging them often leads to their increased ownership and commitment. Instead of standing on the sidelines, they often become organizational leaders as the change rolls out. Finally, involving them in the process sends a powerful signal to the rest of the organization that all voices are important, alternative points of view can be heard, and constructive feedback and future efforts are welcome.

Each skeptic will have fear factors that underlie their reservations about the change. Addressing their concerns, listening to their input, opening up channels of communication and alleviating their anxiety by taking their fears seriously and developing action steps will aid the change process and minimize resistance.

As you look at your learning curriculum, consider building in change management workshops and learning programs. These offer foundational skills your people will use again and again enabling the organization to achieve stragility — strategic, agile people-powered change that creates sustainable competitive advantage.

Ellen R. Auster is a Strategic Management Professor at York University. Lisa Hillenbrand is the former head of P&G’s Brand Building Learning Organization. They are authors of “Stragility: Excelling at Strategic Changes.” Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.


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