Can You Truly Teach Change Management?

There are over 893 groups in LinkedIn dedicated to change management, a fact which tells us two things: One, executives and business owners are worried about change and want to learn how to manage it effectively, and two, they believe change management is something they can learn.

It’s no wonder training for change management has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

But is that belief correct? Can change management be learned? More importantly, can it be taught in a consistent way to others?

On one hand, the industry is toiling under the assumption change management can be taught. There are plenty of books and courses on the subject, and nearly every management training program available approaches the topic.

Simply because there are many resources to teach something does not mean it is easily learned—or learnable at all. Numerous studies found somewhere around 70% of all change initiatives fail. This explains why managers have such anxiety when it comes to change, and why there are so many resources catering to them. The core problem may well be change management, like artistic insight or entrepreneurship, is a skill that cannot truly be taught.

In fact, some high-profile professors at prestigious business schools have claimed real-world experience is needed to effectively lead, especially during times of change. They claim that, while theory can be taught, the “messy” sorts of people skills needed can only be learned through experience.

Asking whether change management can be learned is asking the wrong question.

It’s clear that change management takes a set of skills which are easy to learn and apply, when put into the context of actual practice. Almost any skill can be sharpened with real-world experience, but they also benefit from knowing the theories and frameworks for working through situations, including knowing potential issues that might arise. A good training program therefore has a mix of learning and practice, theory and application.

Two better questions to ask are:

What aspects of change management can be taught through knowledge transfer, and which have to be experienced? How can modern training tools best be used to train managers in both situations?

What aspects of change management can be taught through knowledge transfer?

By “knowledge transfer,” I’m referring to the kind of teaching where one person learns directly from another, either through writing, speaking, visuals, or a combination of these. Traditional lectures are one way to transfer knowledge, but so are books, videos, and webinars.

Knowledge transfer is great for organizing information, providing insight, and outlining steps in a straightforward way. When it comes to aspects of change management that require information, insight, and action plans, training that emphasizes knowledge transfer is ideal. These include topics such as:

  • Typical reactions to change
  • Types of change behaviors
  • Action plans for communicating change
  • Ideas for framing the benefits of the new system or policy
  • Kinds of resistance to change
  • Roadmaps for implementing change in a team

When training managers, it’s best to focus on these aspects of change management early on, when they will expect more theory and planning. This is when classroom-style training, augmented by good content and content tools, plays a critical role.

What aspects of change management require “real world” experience?

Other aspects of change management are difficult to teach using straightforward knowledge transfer. For example, while you can teach someone how to communicate change, you can’t teach them empathy. Nor can you give them a formula for keeping their own frustration in check.

This does not imply training someone in these skills is impossible. It simply means the training needs to include exercises to practice, apply, and remind. For example:

  1. Have your managers practice skills like announcing a change, actively listening to employee concerns, and getting buy-in. The more they practice, the more confident they’ll be when change comes, and the more likely they will be to take the right steps.
  2. Next, increase the likelihood of your managers applying these skills by having them draft a plan before the change needs to happen. Given the specific situation, their plan should include setting measurable, realistic goals. When steps in the plan are implemented, be a good mentor and provide feedback.
  3. Remind managers that they might hear about a change before their employees do, and that they’ve had enough time to process this information. This helps them appreciate and prepare for why their employees initially react the way they do.

In these cases, the aim is not to transfer some body of abstract knowledge, but rather to support the manager in developing a skill at handling the situation. Make it easier for them to check their own emotional reactions, plan for contingencies, and empathize with the team.

This approach to training for change management, which blends elements of both knowledge transfer and experience, can be challenging to implement at first, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. At ej4, we put some of these principles into practice with a training series, Coping with Change, that walks managers through some of these elements of change management.

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