Leveraging Teams for Successful Change - Part 1

Kiersten Rippeteau | Consultant | Palmer OSG

Organizational change practices focus a lot on the individual and on the global organization. Teams, however, are powerful forces that live somewhere in between--and often just out of sight of change leaders. During change initiatives, a focus on impacted teams leads to higher change success rates by increasing engagement and decreasing anxiety and resistance.

Like individuals, teams become hardwired to survive. When threatened, a team will go the extra mile to stay intact. Without sufficient information or voice in the change process, a team will likely go into survival mode and exist as an unaddressed source of resistance.

So how do you avoid team survival mode and engage and leverage teams for successful change?

When a team is trying to stay intact, it will protect what we call its context. According to Leigh Thompson (2014), a team's context is made up of three elements: organizational setting, team design, and team culture.

A team's organizational setting (i.e., the environment in which it operates or the purpose it serves) usually shifts in major change initiatives. Preparing teams well in advance for their new setting is paramount.

Ideally, this means involving the impacted team in the creation of the new setting from the beginning. Communicate with them about the necessary change, help the understand the why, and allow them to be part of creating the new future. When this isn't possible, communicating with and involving the team at the earliest point possible is recommended.


Shifts in team design can be as simple as a slight shift in a business process or as complex as integrating or deconstructing teams. Engaging effected team members early in the redesign process can ease anxieties about the unknown.

Effective team design starts with ensuring the team understands the purpose of the change, then engaging members in a discussion about the new work it needs to accomplish. Leverage their insights to redesign the team in a way that best supports the purpose of the change. An added benefit: It's likely that this approach will yield a better design than may have been accomplished by leadership alone.

Then there is team culture. It may become apparent that a team's culture needs to shift to survive the intended change. Being intentional about creating the culture that will best support a team's purpose can be a real driver for success. When a team's behaviors, attitudes, perceptions of leadership, or beliefs about how to "survive" in the company seem to be getting in the way of a change effort, it's time to look at culture.

Culture, by definition, is embedded in the attitudes and behaviors of members. It ca be extremely difficult for "insiders" alone to effectively identify what needs to shift. If you suspect culture is an issues, it's advisable to engage outside support. There are valuable tools that quantify and give concrete language to the behaviors, relationships, and processes that create culture.

Three other elements should also be managed during change. Considered the performance elements, they are: expertise, engagement, and execution needs. Stay tuned for Part 2, which addresses managing these three elements during change.