In Focus/Dealing with Change
Knowing Change Preferences
Is a Boon for Leaders
Christopher Musselwhite
ow people deal with
change—both creating it and
responding to it—is a function of
identifiable individual preferences.
Whether people see change as a dan-
ger, a challenge, or an opportunity,
they have individual preferences that
reflect their relationship to structure,
rules, and authority.
Gaining knowledge of these pref-
erences can enable leaders to manage
groups and organizations more effec-
tively in situations of change and to
better understand disagreements with
others in such situations. Leaders can
leverage this knowledge to create the
powerful advantage of collabora-
tion—directing collective energy into
creating and producing desired out-
comes rather than letting it go into
blaming, defending, and fighting
about the change process itself.
For ages people have debated over
the best way to approach change.
People in various arenas, from poli-
tics to economics and from business
to education, have argued over evolu-
tion versus revolution, incremental-
ism versus innovation, reform versus
reinvention, and total quality manage-
ment versus reengineering. Often
these debates have had an either-or
quality; one approach is right and the
other is wrong. Such a framework for
change frequently produces conflict,
misunderstanding, strong-arming, and
missed opportunities—not the out-
comes envisioned by the change ini-
Taking the time to understand the
contributions of each of three individ-
ual change style types—conservers,
pragmatists, and originators—can
help leaders become better at recog-
nizing and managing the effective
and ineffective behaviors of each
preference and, as a result, at facili-
tating collaboration and teamwork.
At one end of the change style con-
tinuum are the conservers. They are
good at defining and clarifying cur-
rent reality. Working together to build
on what is already working is the pre-
ferred path to change for a conserver.
To create improvements, con-
servers prefer working within existing
policies, processes, and procedures.
Conservers favor a total quality
management and continuous
improvement approach to organiza-
tional change. They may, in fact, see
the need for substantial systemic
changes but prefer to make such
changes gradually. Conservers want
to keep the current system working
smoothly and will resist decisions and
efforts that they perceive will create
Conservers will ask the hard ques-
tions of proposed change: How will
this be better than what we have
now? Why is the standard practice we
have followed all this time no longer
acceptable? Who will be affected by
this proposed change? What are the
political implications of the change?
What will this cost? What is the
return on investment? What is the
loss in organizational productivity
and effectiveness resulting from these
Used effectively, these questions
are beneficial to any organization
undergoing change. Used ineffec-
tively, they create the appearance of
obstruction and foot-dragging.
Pragmatists tend to focus more on
viable results—getting the job done—
than on challenging or preserving
existing structures. They often see
merit in both an evolutionary and a
revolutionary approach and are moti-
Editor’s note: In Focus is an occasional
series that takes close looks at specific
topics of importance to leadership and
Understanding the
contributions of each of
three individual change
style types can help
leaders facilitate
collaboration and

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