Learning Change Management From the African Revolution

Change is in the air, in north Africa and the middle East. Change, that one constant staple of life, can sound like music to one person yet make another quake, like is happening today in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain among others. These despots are quaking because they didn’t realize or failed to acknowledge that the time for change has come. But sometimes we realize there is need for change and we try to bring it about only to meet with resistance, like the Facebook revolters did. Mubarak stayed put adamantly, then negotiated before actually being forced out. Gaddafi and his sons on the other hand have sworn to fight to their last breath against what most others see as inevitable change whose time has come. What makes people resist change? What makes change a frustrating experience for its advocate in many situations from corporate offices to church sanctuaries?

Manage Loss. To help us understand this we need to realize that change and loss though distinct are always coincidental. With change comes loss and people fight it because the stability of their world is upended. We fight change because we are reluctant to endure the loss it entails. Change proponents or managers need to let those at the receiving end (those who have the most to lose from the change) grieve. Either let them grieve or at least anticipate their grieving. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross speaks of five discrete and progressive stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If this framework is right, and change indeed constitutes loss, then people will go through those stages before accepting change. Take the example of Gaddafi, resisting the change heralded by the Libyan revolution. At the denial stage he dismissed the revolution saying the country was solidly behind him, blaming the protests on al-Qaeda’s whom he alleged was plying teenagers with drugs. Then came anger as government forces have relentlessly tried to crush the opposition. More recently there are unconfirmed reports of Gaddafi bargaining with the opposition and allegedly offering to step down if he and his family are given safe passage, war crimes prosecution immunity and their wealth left intact. If the change is successful the next stage before acceptance is depression and we’ll hear less and less of the angry Gaddafi tone and rhetoric. For anyone leading change, recognize that people are experiencing a loss in the change – hence the resistance. Anticipate their grieving and help ease it. William Bridges’ Managing Transitions has more on this.

Engage Emotions. Sometimes the change is one we can rationally understand and ordinarily support yet we find it reluctant to let go. That’s because the processes involved are often emotional and not purely analytical. Anyone responsible for change will do well to engage people’s emotions rather than use analysis to engage reason. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a rational basis for change. That should be assumed. But successful change is carried out when people can see something that engages them emotionally. This is Kotter’s point in his books on change (Leading Change, The Heart of Change). Rather than give people analysis with the goal of influencing their thinking leading to the change you want, Kotter says it is more effective to give them a picture of the truth which galvanizes their feeling and change results naturally because it is at the emotional level that people connect with the cause of change. This was precisely the bane of president Ben Ali of Tunisia. last December when Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was a symbol of the truth necessitating change namely; unemployment, inflation, corruption, lack of freedom of speech and other political freedoms. Whether Bouazizi did it to galvanize the change that followed is open to question since he died from his severe burns, but what is unquestionable is that it sparked the protests which resulted in the president’s resignation a mere 28 days later. One lesson here is that the truth symbol which engages people’s emotion for change doesn’t have to be orchestrated by the change leader. she just needs to look around to see powerful, public things, events which symbols which portray the truth that engages people’s emotions to want change. are you a change leader? What change is needed in the organization? fins something which powerfully conveys a picture of the truth the people need to see and then capitalize on it to ‘sell the problem’ and you have people more naturally signing up for the change.

Manage transitions. This easily paints the picture of an urgent need to the people. When Change managers do well to engage William Bridges in the book Managing Transitions distinguishes between changes and transitions. While changes are the actual things that happen technically, transitions are what people experience through the change and this is more psychological. Usually it is not the changes that floor people but the transitions. And generally the transition goes through 3 phases; the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. The leader needs to help people prepare for the three stages of transition. This is easier to do when there is revolutionary (drastic) change rather than evolutionary (slower, incremental) change. Though drastic change is more shocking to its ‘victims’, yet it is easier to distinguish between the three phases despite their obvious overlaps. This however, is what makes change messy, especially if the leaders are not managing the transitions well or the leaders are absent. This is what we see in Tunisia and Egypt presently. The first stage is over and the people have ended the past – even Mubarak and Ben Ali now realize that the end of their regimes is past. The people seem to be in the neutral zone where things are fluid. There is need for re-framing and redefinition before the new beginning can really start in a definite direction. The lack of this so far is a cause of concern for many. While some are warning that a democratic revolution in Arab nations does not necessarily guarantee pro-American or pro-Israeli regimes, others worry that Islāmic jihadists will fill the leadership void created. We are seeing in effect the results of change when the transition is not managed. I guess that is what happens when a revolution is powered by Facebook and YouTube!


I am a pastor and adjunct professor. I am interested in Leadership, Education, culture as well as the spiritual life. I am the author of no books, but I blog occasionally. I am married and have 4 lovely children.

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Posted in Leadership
2 comments on “Learning Change Management From the African Revolution
  1. Ryan Hillebrand says:

    Good job Agam. Was this written as a short paper in your doctoral program, or just for fun?

    • agamtoks says:

      Not for class, just airing some of my thoughts on change. Some of the authors I referenced were read for a class on change, power and conflict management though.

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