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Change Management: Leading Before the Change


In 2000, studies revealed that 70% of all change initiatives fail, resulting in loss of productivity, time, money, and most importantly, employee morale. 20 years later, we’ve actually gotten worse. Today, 75% of transformation efforts don’t deliver the hoped-for results. 

Change is about people. Change efforts should be human-centric. Now, more than ever, the call to action for stability in the workplace is loud and clear. With overlapping waves of rapid change, we require a new perspective. 

A new perspective

Leaders need to focus on communication, engagement, and productivity before the change. It’s important for employees to understand how the business processes will be different from the status quo. Methodically, conduct a change management assessment and have the information available for the change management task force to assist in communicating with employees. Both individually and in teams, remember that change communication best covers both the rational housekeeping business to-do’s, as well as the emotional mindset of the employees. The latter will drive your success and adoption of new processes and procedures when employees feel safe and trusted. 

How prepared are you?


Let’s level set and review how prepared you are for the change. Have you:

  • Completed a culture audit (formal/informal) to determine what will support and what will impede the changes (risk analysis)? 
  • Established a governance structure: steering committee, change champions, workgroup, etc.? 
  • Engaged stakeholders through interviews, focus groups, etc.? 
  • Documented implementation plan with timeframe and milestones? 
  • Created a communication plan inclusive of all channels? 
  • Planned for training and educating leaders at all levels to lead change?

Influencing behavior

Leaders may cultivate a sense of stability by fostering a psychologically safe environment. This is accomplished through meaningful connections with direct and indirect reports. The leadership skills of empathy, compassion, adaptability and learning mindset strengthen organizational resilience and emotional wellbeing. To help leaders coach those they lead, a simple and effective tool is David Rock’s SCARF model (2008). This hard science mnemonic model leverages the neurological science of survival, acknowledging that people’s behavior is driven by the perception of threat and safety. This easy and natural model both unpacks and resolves emotional distress. Employee engagement is heightened when they experience being heard, valued, and trusted in an ever-changing work environment.

Don't forget your SCARF

Scarves can keep us warm and protected against the chill of winter. Scarves can also be decorative and help us express ourselves. The SCARF Model helps coaches and leaders create psychologically safe spaces for themselves and their teams.

SCARF is an acronym for five neuroscience “domains” that research tells us impact people’s behavior in social situations. Similar to emotional intelligence research speaking of primitive driven amygdala hijacks, SCARF references the threat and reward responses of our brain. SCARF addresses how inclusion is paramount to safety and feeling secure. As the reality becomes scary, the stress hormone cortisol is released which will affect productivity and innovation. Why? Because when we are scared, we often find it difficult to think logically.

Notice how the SCARF Model walks us through the perceptions of our environment.

  • Status: Our perceived relative importance to others 
  • Certainty: Our perceived ability to predict the future 
  • Autonomy: Our perceived ability to have control over events 
  • Relatedness: How safe we perceive our environment 
  • Fairness: How we perceive the level of equality during exchanges between ourselves and others


In order to foster the perception of a safe space before the change, whether as a group or individually, purposefully plan your communication using SCARF to anticipate pushback or resistance. The following example includes a framing question and a real-world application in the scenario of returning to work.


What is your relative importance to others? 

  • Validate the value of your team to the organization so they can make meaningful and purposeful connections to your organization’s mission, vision, and purpose. 



What is your ability to predict the future?

  • Creating safety during a time of uncertainty is a success in itself. Our human brains prefer predictability, therefore when we know what to expect, we feel safe. Ensure you are clear in your communication of goals, timelines, and deliverables. 



What is your sense of control over events?

  • Leadership gut check: How much are you allowing the team to drive the discussion? Are you holding a safe space for them to learn and grow? By allowing your team to participate in the decisions regarding people, process, systems, and structure - together you build ownership of outcomes and ultimately, success. 



How safe are we in this environment? 

  • This is an excellent application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need: fostering a sense of belonging. Relatedness is a great driver for employee engagement. How are you creating a sense of belonging for team members? 



How fair do we perceive the exchange between others or ourselves? 

  • Be aware that a sense of unfairness may happen when there is a lack of rules, expectations, or objectives. When returning to work, this is a good time to revisit your team’s charter and make modifications. 


To learn more about David Rock’s model visit his paper here: "SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others." We also recommend Barbara Frederickson's Broaden and Build Theory. Knowledge is power!

In summary

When leading before the change, it is important to first understand if employees feel there is an atmosphere of safety and security.  We have provided you with a quick and easy checklist of ways to assess your work environment readiness for change as a leader. Sometimes we find out there are risks to the “planned change” that are beyond our control. Applying the neuroscience coaching model, SCARF, when talking with your teams or individuals will help you frame safe conversations that are positive and realistic. Knowing the risks empowers you, as the leader, to be prepared for their questions. SCARF helps you empathize with them by rewarding their risky behavior of asking questions and sharing their fears. When we create an atmosphere of psychological safety BEFORE the “planned change” we help ourselves and our teams feel empowered and increase the desire to do a great job.

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Read the second blog in this series: Change Management: Leading During The Change >>


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About Author

Dr. Christina Barss
Dr. Christina Barss

Dr. Christina Barss is an experienced industry subject matter expert in improvement sciences and organizational culture change. Her unique blend of practical, academic, and art perspectives creates custom operational and employee engagement solutions that transform the bottom line. For example, her PhD in sustainable systems design focused on disparately located interprofessional teams in transition during lean transformation at a large, midwestern, urban, academic medical center. Dr. Barss' 12 years in healthcare were filled leading strategic enterprise-level initiatives to improve patient safety, quality, service, and innovation as well as teaching and coaching executives. From C-suite to frontline, she connects seamlessly and guides others in building trust bridges. Her continuous improvement science foundation began in the manufacturing industry. She presents nationally and internationally on design thinking, change management, organizational culture, corporate learning, executive education, and succession planning.

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