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Understanding Change Mindsets—A Compass for Change

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 — November 15th, 2022

Understanding Change Mindsets—A Compass for Change

Has your leadership team decided on an important change program and you can’t get employees behind it?

Are you an individual leader struggling to persuade your team to change? Have you brought in the A-team and they’re managing change in your organization with traffic lights and checkboxes but employees couldn’t care less?

Theories of change

There are more theories of change management than you can throw a stick at. Practitioners and academics put their weight behind Lewin’s three steps, Beer’s six step change management model, or Kotter’s eight steps for leading change.

The Ultimate Guide to Change Management Communication

All are valid, and most have many steps in common, just reordered in different ways. Whether you work with external consultants or your own in-house change management team, they will adhere to a particular model and ensure that you follow the steps.

So far, so unsurprising. But just because you have a model and a fired-up change management team does not mean you will actually change minds.

And that’s where change mindsets come into play. Individual change mindsets exist and they are only a snapshot of where you are in the moment. Your change mindset can shift and alter depending on the situation, the challenges, and the people around you.

Defining work on change mindsets

The defining work on change mindsets has been done by Hans Vermaak, a lecturer, researcher, and management consultant. Together with Léon de Caluwé, he has written (and annually updates) the publication Research in Organizational Change and Development.

In their work, they define five key change mindsets or colors. They provide a handy test in which you can work out your change mindset. The first time I did the test, I tested white. Recently, I tested white again. All quotes below are from my test report, which is supplied by Vermaak’s consultancy Twynstra Gudde.

White: A white change leader believes in the self-organizing capacity of organizations and people. This leader will catalyze change when the time is right.

White thinkers try to see where the opportunities are, support those who seize them and help them remove obstacles.

This is called "emergent change"—the leader who sees the world as infinitely complex and multidimensional, and believes in organic change. These are leaders are comfortable with chaos and discomfort.

Red: Red change leadership is about motivation. Red wants to understand people and tries to find the best fit between organization, people, their skills, and their motivation.

The red change leader is careful, sensitive to ambiance, and loves people.

The huge growth in the coaching industry comes out of a need for these human-driven change skills.

Blue: A blue change leader is about rational, planned change. They plan for the best result and implement carefully using project management tools.

A blue change leader has "knowledge of the matter, an analytic mindset and an organised work method.

This change mindset is very familiar to anyone who has worked in a German company. We will be rational and analytical, and the employees will inevitably accept change because it is the right thing to do.

Yellow: This is the political change leader, who thinks about change in terms of conflicts and negotiations. They try to find win-win outcomes.

Successful yellow change leaders have political skills and are stable enough to handle the pressure.

This is the area where I scored the lowest—a sign that I need to work on my negotiation skills.

Green: A green change leader is all about learning and development. They are about experimenting, coaching, and learning from experience.

As a green change leader, you pursue a learning change organization. You facilitate and support people.

The challenge with the green mindset is that you are so busy learning from your mistakes and seeing everything as a growth opportunity, that you never crack on with the actual change.

How to put change mindsets to use

Think about someone at work whose style drives you mad. If you test very low on red (emotions), it’s probable that that person’s change mindset is strongly red. If someone is exhaustingly linear, they probably have a blue mindset. It’s a useful way to understand and have some compassion towards people who are very different from you.

Another way of putting the change mindset to use is to try asking open-ended questions from a change mindset style that is not comfortable for you. In an exercise recently, I asked, ‘Who are the people you need to know or bring into the discussion who can help shift your target audience?’

Understanding your change mindset is very valuable in understanding how you turn up in your organization. It’s not a stamp on your forehead, because it can change from situation to situation, but it is a compass.

It’s so useful for leaders or teams who are battling with change in their organizations. Try it and see where you land.

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