Change leadership vs. change management: Helpful methods for helping teams through transformation

Most in the business world have likely heard of change management, but not necessarily change leadership. What’s the difference, and how can each be applied in your organization?


Image: Yunus Malik/Shutterstock

With worldwide events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting how work gets done, dealing with change can sometimes feel overwhelming at all levels. Change management and change leadership are vital to ensuring your company can effectively respond; each has a specific but complementary role. 

What is change management?

Change management is about the concepts, technologies or models organizations use to manage and reduce disruption when changes impact processes and people. It aims to gain buy-in, increase employee engagement and re-imagine processes that ensure operations continue to run smoothly and effectively. Sometimes managing change requires limited effort, and other times it can require transformational activities. Several recognized change management models are in use today, including ADKAR and Kotter’s Theory, which overlap change management and leadership management.

Change management models


ADKAR stands for awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement. This approach is focused on individuals and is used to increase team member buy-in and help staff realize their value and role related to change within the organization. The ADKAR approach ensures each team member is working together seamlessly to manage change better.

Bridges’ Transition Model

William Bridges, a change consultant, designed this model to focus on people and their emotional experiences as they go through change. This model recognizes three stages: 

  1. Ending, losing and letting go, when people are resistant due to fear
  2. The neutral zone, when people struggle to let go of the status quo and accept the new
  3. The new beginning, when people finally accept the new way of doing things

Deming Cycle 

Developed by Dr. Williams Edwards Deming, the Deming Cycle follows a framework that focuses on process improvement and is divided into four phases:

  1. Plan
  2. Do
  3. Check
  4. Act

Kotter’s theory

John Kotter developed the Kotter Method and has been pivotal in shaping change leadership at the organizational level. This method creates a roadmap that can guide large groups such as large advisory committees and faculties through change.

Kübler-Ross Change Curve

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created this model to relay the experience of grief. It helps to understand each stage of grief and address employees’ behavior and response to change such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Lewin’s Change Management Model

Kurt Lewin developed this model in the 1950s, which divides the change process into three steps: feeze, change and unfreeze. 

Maurer 3 Levels of Resistance and Change Model

Designed by Rick Maurer, this model centers on what causes changes to fail. It focuses on three critical levels of resistance: “I don’t get it,” “I don’t like it” or “I don’t like you.”

The model factors in negative reactions to change or lack of trust and confidence in a person or people trying to implement the change.

McKinsey 7-S Model

McKinsey & Company consultants developed this model to break down a change program into seven key components that ensure essential elements aren’t missed; components include:

  • Change strategy
  • Company structure  
  • Systems and processes
  • Company values and culture
  • How work gets completed
  • Employee involvement
  • Employee skills  

Nudge Theory

Nudge is aimed at nudging employees in the desired direction of change based on some basic principles:

  • Changes need to be clearly defined
  • Employee views matter
  • Evidence should support the best options
  • Choice should be an option, not a demand
  • Listen to employee feedback
  • Options should be limited
  • Acknowledge short-term wins to create buy-in
  • Employees should see themselves and influence how change is adopted

Satir Change Model

Also applicable in business, this model was designed by a family therapist, Virginia Satir, based on her experiences with families and how they view and handle change. It aims to focus on:

  • Where individuals or teams are when starting out
  • The natural response to the initial introduction of change 
  • Confusion and resistance when change is starting to be implemented  
  • General acceptance once productivity begins to level
  • Employees getting used to the new normal 

What is change leadership?

Change leadership is more about executives being the driving force behind enabling large-scale change. It refers to leadership traits focused on developing, communicating and supporting a strategic plan for a clear vision, especially as it relates to change. This involves defining goals and engaging employees in effectively achieving goals. Change leadership can significantly help to improve change management during uncertainty. Today, some change leadership models are being utilized by organizations, each with its focus and benefits. 

Change leadership models

ADKAR Approach

Also applicable to change management, ADKAR is focused on individuals. This approach ensures that each team member and leader is aligned in better managing change. The ADKAR approach is used to increase team member buy-in and help staff realize their value and role related to change within the organization. 

Bacharach Approach

Developed by Samuel Bacharach, professor at Cornell University, this approach was developed based on his perspective on leadership. It is focused on gaining support and maintaining momentum. Bacharach views leaders as change agents that provide guidance and direction to individuals and teams to support the successful management of change.

Kotter Method

Overlapping with change management, Kotter is focused more on larger groups. This method helps create a roadmap that guides larger groups such as committees, faculties and so forth through change.

While change leadership and change management are different, the models and strategies are designed to provide organizations with the desired outcomes for dealing with change.

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