6 Overcoming barriers to change

Many people embark on change projects with good intentions, but often struggle to overcome the barriers and setbacks that occur along the way. Some leaders get distracted by petty disagreements and emotional resistance, and accept failure rather than work hard to overcome these barriers. So the question is: Is failure more powerful than success?

Two allies for leaders in overcoming the inevitable barriers to change are trust and motivation. If a leader has the trust of their school community, their belief in the positive outcomes of a change will help to overcome barriers. Motivation to change not only has to be built in the first place, but also needs to be maintained over the period of change and continued to sustain the change.


Trust is a fundamental element of any relationship, including that between a leader and their followers. Trust is the glue that holds relationships together and is therefore vital in day-to-day school life – particularly when you are introducing something new. When trust is absent, a leader may find that their followers turn to someone else for guidance and direction. As a school leader, you earn and build trust among the school community through your work and leadership – much is based on the soundness of your judgement and consistency of your practice. It can take a long time to establish but only moments to destroy. Lost trust is very difficult to restore.

Trust is two-way: school leaders need to be able to trust their colleagues to conduct their duties to the highest possible standards and delegate tasks in full confidence that the job will be carried out. On the other side, teachers and stakeholders (parents, students and the wider community) have to be able to trust school leaders to lead the school in the right direction. They have to be certain that the school leader has the best interests of the students, staff and school at the forefront of their decision making.


In order to make a change, people need to be motivated and to sustain their motivation. In the initial stages, change can arouse curiosity and excitement at what may be about to happen. This will carry some people along in the early stages of change, but may not last long enough to bring about any real benefits. On the other hand, change can also incite fear, confusion and tension, which can lead to resistance. As the change process continues, motivation may drop as fatigue sets in and performances decline.

Emotions can run high at times of change and leave people feeling vulnerable and unmotivated. This can lead to attempts to sabotage – whether consciously or subconsciously – the change process. These emotions include aggression, stress or anxiety. Any leader planning a change must be aware of these emotions; and allow time and resources in the plans for the necessary communication, extra time to do the work, and offer training that will help people to deal with both their emotions and the change. This will avoid some of the problems that result from people’s psychological reactions to change. Distressed or unmotivated colleagues will not change easily or effectively.

Activity 6: Promoters and inhibitors of change

Consider your school and what happens there to promote or inhibit change. Make notes in your Learning Diary of four factors that help change to take root in your school. Why do you say so? Now identify four factors that prevent change in your school and describe your possible solutions.


Here are some examples of promoters that may vary from your schools and leadership practice:

  • everyone is allowed to try new things
  • the staff believe in the vision of the school
  • there are clear lines of communication
  • the staff know and understand their roles within the change process.

Here are examples of inhibitors:

  • individual or group reluctance to challenge the prevailing culture (‘we’ve always done it this way’)
  • routine is disrupted
  • the staff do not want ownership
  • uncertainty
  • fear
  • possible increase in workload
  • effort required (input) may not match the desired outcome (output)
  • teachers and stakeholders may not have confidence in the leadership
  • staff blaming students’ home background for examination failure
  • personality clashes, personal agendas and fractured interpersonal relationships.

It is important to remember that not everyone opposes change for the sake of it. There is no single solution to any of the inhibitors you may have listed in Activity 6, but here are some ideas.

  • Set out your objectives for the change right from the start. State clearly what you want to achieve, and why. It is useful to use more than one method. For example, you could call a team meeting and discuss future plans, and then follow this up with a written memo giving everyone at the meeting all the same details. The tone of these communications should be positive and optimistic while being reassuring.
  • Explain how dangerous it can be for the school to become too complacent. Make sure that your teachers are given plenty of examples: stories of how other schools have succeeded, as well as examples of schools that are struggling because they have failed to respond to a changing environment.
  • Acknowledge the risks of change but explain the consequences for not changing.
  • Where change is planned internally, point out that it could happen to your school no matter what you do, and that therefore, it is better for the school to make its own changes voluntarily and in a controlled manner rather than have them imposed.
  • Draw on the experiences of your staff and other stakeholders.

Activity 7: Writing a change action plan

What practical measure have you put in place in your school to ensure that you meet the requirements of a new initiative such as the RtE or CCE? Reflect on your study of this unit and think about two small changes you would like to make in your school to improve student learning and achievement. Then complete the change action plan in the resources section.

It may be useful to share your ideas with your staff and discuss your implementation timescale and any foreseeable challenges.

5 Leadership approaches