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LEAD: Building emotional capacity for change

Niel Rall gives an overview of the processes involved in building emotional capacity for change in business teams

We live in a rapidly changing business environment. Change forces such as globalisation and technology continuously accelerate the pace of change and business has to cope with challenges created by change in order to remain competitive.

This is common knowledge. However, few organisations have the capacity to respond to change on rational, operational, creative, as well as emotional levels. In change management, the focus is very often on the first two levels, and lately some attention is also given to the creative level. The emotional level, however, is still severely neglected. This incapacity to respond to change on an emotional level is of particular importance, as it also has a great impact on how we cope with change on the other three levels.


In general, we can distinguish four change management strategies:

  • Ignore change: Organisations deny the impact of change, but eventually become victims of change.
  • Adapt to change: Organisations recognise that change is inevitable and make the necessary adjustments to cope with change.
  • Anticipate change: Organisations proactively anticipate change and create visions and strategies to position themselves strategically in the future business environment.
  • Initiate change: Organisations create fundamental change through innovation that  provides direction and sets the pace for change.

The further organisations advance with change management strategies, the greater the need becomes for an emotional capacity for change. It becomes more important because people have a natural resistance to change. There are various reasons for this:

  • People fear a loss of security, status and territory, that their skills may become redundant, and that they may not be able to cope with new demands.
  • The current reality provides a comfort zone that is familiar and certain, while the future reality is unfamiliar and uncertain and is therefore often perceived as a threat.
  • The risk for failure causes feelings of insecurity and anxiety.

Organisational behaviour is often driven by emotion. When people experience emotions such as fear, uncertainty, threats, insecurity and anxiety, it reduces the level of openness for change significantly and can even result in negative behavioural patterns, such as resistance to change, turf protection, promoting of own interests, internal conflict and even sabotage of change processes.  Special interventions are therefore required to create a sufficient level of openness for change.


For Peter Senge,1 openness is a cornerstone for creating learning organisations. In any business team, three levels of openness are imperative for change:

  • Reflective openness involves self-understanding (self-awareness, self-disclosure and understanding own paradigms), conducting introspection, admitting own deficiencies and a personal commitment to change.
  • Interactive openness involves a willingness to share ideas convincingly whilst still  regarding own ideas as contributions rather than final answers, as well as a willingness to listen and incorporate other ideas into an integrated solution.
  • Structural openness involves the organisational capacity to accept ideas on merit and give recognition regardless of status and seniority. This also involves the abdication of  positional power in favour of individual freedom to generate ideas and a caring culture where people are respected and original ideas are valued more than conformance with hierarchy.


The emotional incapacity of team leaders and members to acknowledge their own emotional vulnerability, dysfunctional behavioural patterns, and lack of openness are the most important obstacles to change in business teams. As a consequence, teams tend to develop a culture in which everybody expects others to change but nobody acknowledges the need for changing themselves. This is a major obstacle, because teams can only change if individuals change. The individual emotional capacity to acknowledge the need for change is therefore a prerequisite for teams to change. The following processes could create measurable improvement in the capacity for individual and team change:

  • Identifying and analysing dysfunctional behavioural patterns in teams
  • Measuring and statistically analysing the openness levels within teams
  • Developing emotional intelligence required for openness on individual and team levels
  • Facilitating non-threatening interventions enabling individuals to acknowledge own deficiencies and commit to change
  • Facilitating workshops to develop team dynamics supportive of innovation and change
  • Creating the leadership capacity to sustain change
  • Providing coaching services to support individuals with personal change
  • Measuring and statistically analysing improvement in emotional capacity for change

These processes have already significantly enhanced the emotional capacity for change in hundreds of teams in a broad spectrum of South African organisations. ❐


1             P M Senge, The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization, New York:      Currency Doubleday, 1990.

Author: Dr Niel Rall is the CEO of Leader