Barriers to Change: Leader Entitlement

When leaders act as if change is for other people—when they think they don’t need to modify their behavior—they can put an entire change program at risk

You’re on the “road show” portion of change making, going around to different functions within the organization to convince them to adopt new systems and new ways of working. And at first, the change is well-received: all the leaders nod vigorously, and promise to implement it with their teams. But soon, reports start coming back that while teams are trying to operate in the new way, the leaders are refusing to get with the program. They’re still demanding changes without going through the new process, for instance, or dictating next steps despite the intention to empower teams.

When leaders act as if change is for other people—when they think they don’t need to modify their behavior—they exhibit Leader Entitlement, believing their titles literally grant them special privileges to ignore the change.

When leaders act as if change is for other people—when they think they don’t need to modify their behavior—they exhibit Leader Entitlement, believing their titles literally grant them special privileges to ignore the change. They might do this for several reasons: 

  • They simply don’t understand their role in the change. Their behavior may look petulant or combative, but it’s possible they’ve just forgotten or misunderstood what was being asked of them, and haven’t connected the dots between their behavior and the new desired organizational outcomes. Alternately, they lack a bit of self-awareness, and don’t realize how their behavior impacts others. This change barrier can often be misdiagnosed as more nefarious than it is, especially when you account for the number of competing priorities most leaders are juggling.
  • They think their way is best, but they won’t come out and say it. Leaders tend to have years of experience, deep institutional knowledge, and subject matter expertise—so it’s completely understandable that they think they know best. But if, for whatever reason, they don’t want to state this outright, they may quietly attempt to subvert the change work instead. 
  • They believe conceptually in the change being proposed, but lack trust in the change maker. They may have nodded along because they believe that the change is necessary for the organization, but they’ve decided to go it alone because ultimately, they don’t have faith in the individuals leading the broader program. 
  • They’re protecting their position. If the change fails, their reputation might be tarnished… but if the change succeeds, they might lose their position of authority. In a lose-lose situation, leaders are understandably focused on protecting their own interests.
  • And yes, finally, some leaders (the very few) believe they have earned the right to ignore you. For a slim minority, leadership is a path to leisure and/or dominance over others. Whether they think the changes are a distraction from the “real” work they’re doing, or if they just don’t want to participate, in their mind, their position truly entitles them to ignore the change and your pleas for participation. These leaders can become serious roadblocks for meaningful change.

Whatever the reason, even a single leader defecting from a change initiative can have serious negative effects, including: 

  • A loss of a valuable perspective that can represent an entire function, division, region, or customer segment; potentially dooming the program to myopia
  • Withholding key resources and people critical to the change, slowing or stalling efforts
  • Failing to share the importance of the change with their teams, even reinforcing a message of avoidance and potentially creating a ripple effect as others use their lack of participation as an excuse to not engage

So if you see Leader Entitlement happening at your organization, it’s important to address it:

  • Engage critical leaders from the outset. So many change programs get started covertly to avoid dissenting opinions, but these fail to build trust, and struggle to gather the necessary political support when they need to scale. To balance the need for inclusion with the threat of “too many cooks,” engage leaders early in very specific ways (i.e., “At this stage, we want to pre-mortem the plan and hear your concerns in the open”).
  • “Call in” leaders who defect. Don’t let leaders ignore change without noting it, but be careful not to lead with shame and accusation—remember, they may be unaware of their behavior or impact. Focus on the exact behaviors you need from them and when, and explain how their behavior impacts the goals of the program and the organization at large. 
  • Listen for fears of loss. If they seem stuck on reserving a particular decision right, or adamant about doing one process their way, find out more. What are they concerned might happen if they adopt the new method? Are there actions you can take to either avoid that situation entirely, or ameliorate if it does occur?
  • Incentivize the new behavior. If possible, make sure the organization is rewarding the right behavior and including change metrics in their performance evaluation. If they’re not being assessed and rewarded for these new behaviors—or worse, the existing incentive structure punishes them for it—they won’t adopt it. You may also need to find someone at their level or higher to push back when they deviate from the new way of doing things. 
  • Leverage your own networks to “surround sound” them. Curry political alliances with their peers and those who can wield influence with them. This also involves understanding the best forums for engaging with these leaders. Some leaders need 1:1 time to really dig in, while other leaders will be influenced in a group setting—cater your approach to each leader as needed.
  • Appeal to their ego. If other strategies aren’t working, and you’re dealing with a leader who patently sees themselves as exempt from change due to their status, the only way forward may be to appeal directly to their ego. Acknowledge that their participation is crucial—because of their unique gifts and how others look to them for direction and role modeling. Yes, this strategy isn’t ideal in the long run, it would be better if you could convince a leader to participate for the benefit of the collective good, but if a change is truly important to you and necessary to the organization then you may need to pursue more political tactics from time to time.
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Barriers to Change: Leader Entitlement
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