When organisations or government departments embark on large-scale change, whether to cut costs, institute reform, acquire assets or increase advantage, they often underestimate the hidden costs and human factors. A 70% failure rate is commonly cited for change initiatives designed to improve business performance. Leadership and people issues are the most common reasons why full potential is not realised.

This is not as surprising when you consider that people don’t like change and it takes a lot of work to resource and maintain a rigourous change process over several years. Transparent communication and empathic response from leadership increases the chances of positive outcomes. It also engages employees who look for visible senior leadership, decision-making input and evidence co-workers are prepared to make personal sacrifices to help, even before knowing their job status. Providing opportunities for people to grow and develop through change and build strong, consistent relationships and collaborative work groups, encourages more people to stay, strive and say positive things about the organisation throughout the change process [1].


Human impact

After decisions are made and deals inked, the people left to make it work can feel disillusioned and confused, particularly when change is imposed and, in the case of an organisational or departmental merger, they are on the ‘losing’ team. Many people are not equipped to deal with this stress and uncertainty and maintain business as usual. People can appear stunned, behave inappropriately and make errors in judgement. This can be equally true for employees who bear the brunt of decisions as for leaders and change agents charged with navigating, supporting and engaging people as change initiative are implemented.

It is important to bear in mind that peoples’ initial reactions to change initiatives can be negative even when rationally they understand the benefits. The brain is wired to perceive environmental threats, which biases our perceptions and decision-making. Organisations need to work hard to counter negativity during change and focus efforts on the positive [2].


Harnessing strengths

A strength-based approach to managing change in organisations helps make it stick [3].

Understanding, honouring and building on the strengths of the culture and people who have contributed to past successes makes major change feel less like an imposition from the top and more like shared evolution. Harnessing strengths and realising areas where they are untapped can make a critical difference when communicating the change strategy and supporting people to adopt new behaviours.

Focusing on strengths also energises individuals and groups. Research shows that using strengths promotes confidence [4], goal attainment [5] and less stress over time [6]. When people use their strengths they feel more in touch with their values and more able to adapt and realise inner resources when overcome challenging situations [7]. They also have more energy to put toward achieving shared goals. Harnessing strengths of individuals and teams and aligning these with strategic objectives is a powerful way to achieve higher performance and keep people focussed on positive collaboration and results [8].

This approach is designed to empower people with a common language to better understand themselves and their new colleagues and leverage diverse strengths within teams. It also engages people in making positive and proactive choices about how they will live the new values and be successful in the new environment. The result is likely to be more energy, motivation and growth potential for individuals and the organisation during a challenging period.


Emotionally intelligent leadership

Emotional intelligence helps leaders manage people and themselves during change. Developing the capability to perceive their own and others’ emotions, understand, manage and use them effectively helps them achieve productive outcomes during stressful situations. Emotional intelligence training is particularly useful in helping people control their impulses, regulate their emotions and make effective decisions, as emotion and thinking are inextricably linked [9]. Supporting leaders through targeted coaching and development helps them cope with their emotions and reactions and those of employee’s, avoid major catastrophes, accurately assess risks and make sense of what is happening to and around them during change.

A leader who is aware of their emotional impact and able to proactively influence their team’s emotional state by creating and sustaining positive mood will also help shape organisational climate. This is particularly relevant when considering the powerful effect of ’emotional contagion’ within groupsboth positive and negative [10][11]. Positive emotions build people’s psychological and social resources and strategies for thinking and behaving, according to Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory [12]. She found that positive emotions act as a reset to negative emotions, creating an upward spiral that counters downward spirals of negativity [13]. This positive energy spreads through organisations to enable cooperation during the transformation process [14].

Collaboration is the focus for a change initiative we are supporting in one branch of a global IT company. The organisation has experienced leadership changes and APAC restructuring and is under significant pressure to win business in a competitive market.

To help the company move from a negative to a positive mindset and culture during this process, we are equipping team members with emotional intelligence and positive relationship skills. Our positive intervention is designed to help support and sales teams work more effectively together and build relationships that will increase their readiness and capacity to collaborate on larger deals. It will also enable teams to build support networks and perform better under stress.


Positive growth

Upskillling leaders, change agents and teams in positive psychology applications helps turn challenging situations into opportunities for growth and renewal. When organisations approach change from a positive rather than a deficit perspective, they enable people to focus on what is working well to counter the negativity bias.

This enables them to create movements that draw individuals, teams and the organisation toward a best possible future that is motivating and emotionally attractive [15][16].

People need ongoing motivation, guidance and support and even small changes that positively impact people’s everyday experience make a difference and accrue over time. Positive emotions also generate more creative ideas [17], so building positive activities into meetings encourages people to come up with new solutions and innovate during change.

Positive approaches, which build psychological capital, promise to deliver tangible value over time. For example PsyCap micro interventions that develop hope, realistic optimism, confidence and resilience have been estimated to reap annual returns of (conservatively) 2%, realising $585 million in revenue in the average mid-sized business, and far higher value in retention of A-list employees [18].

A positive, strengths-based, emotionally intelligent approach can help organisations cope with, adapt and thrive through change. Organisations that take the opportunity to support and develop their leaders and employees in honestly, openly and positively engaging change are more likely to achieve sustainable results. Most importantly (we think so), it can help them create a stronger platform for growth for individuals, groups and the whole organisation.

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  3. Katzenbach, J.R., Steffen, I. & Kronley, C. (2012). Cultural change that sticks. Harvard Business Review, July-August (Reprint R1207K), pp.19.
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  6. Wood, A.M. Linley, P.A., Maltby, J., Kashdan, T.B., & Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(1), pp.1519.
  7. Francis, S. (2013). Strengths use and self-concordance in difficult situations. Unpublished research report for Master of Business Coaching, University of Wollongong.
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  13. Garland, E., Fredrickson, B., Kring A., Johnson, B., Meyer, P. & Penn, D. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), pp.849-64.
  14. Sekerka, L., & Fredrickson, B. (2010). Working positively toward transformative cooperation. In A. Linley, S. Harrington and N. Garcea (eds.). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.81-94.
  15. Garcea, N. & Linley, P.A. (2011). ibid.
  16. Boyatzis, R.E. & Akrivou, K. (2006). An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), pp.624642.
  17. Langley, S. (2013). The impact of emotions on creativity. Poster presentation at 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology, Los Angeles, June.
  18. Luthans, F. (2006). Measurement and development of PsyCap: Assessing the return on investment. In F. Luthans, C.M. Youssef, & B.J. Avolio, Eds. Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, pp.218247.