The 25-50-25 Principle of Change

Last year, I wrote about the difference between tension and conflict, and why it was necessary for leaders to know the difference. In short, tension is a healthy and temporary disagreement within a team that produces a positive outcome when addressed well. Conflict is unhealthy and potentially permanent disagreement that produces negative outcomes and must be removed.

Leading through tension isn’t fun because getting our teams through those moments requires us to challenge people. We have to challenge their thinking, their attitudes, and their emotional responses—not in an aggressive manner, but with the kind of confidence that communicates clearly.

In my book, Leadershift: 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, one of the shifts I write about is the Relational Shift from pleasing people to challenging people. This was one of the most important lessons I learned in leadership.

It was also one of my most difficult—I learned early in life that people liked me, and I developed relational connections very easily. I intuitively knew what mattered to people and as a result I was able to please them. Because it seemed like a strength, I leaned into developing that skill.

Making everyone happy seemed to be my leadership mojo. And it made me happy to do it!

Like me, a lot of new leaders often confuse pleasing people with leading people—the idea being that if everyone is happy with me, they’ll follow me.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is, you can never make everyone happy. And wanting to do so only sets you up to fail. When tension builds, good leadership always challenges people to rise to the occasion, to become their best, to achieve more.

Some people accept the challenge and help the team win. Others don’t. So how can you as a leader learn to manage people through this process?

You can use the 25-50-25 Principle of Change.

I learned about this years ago at a leadership roundtable in Los Angeles and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s become one of the most helpful principles of leading through tension and change that I’ve ever encountered. Here’s how it goes:

Whenever you cast vision and challenge people to cut through tension and achieve something greater, they will tend to fall into three groups. Typically, 25 percent of the people will support you, 50 percent of the people will remain uncommitted or uncertain, and 25 percent of the people will resist.

Your job as a leader is to get the people in that 50 percent group to join the 25 percent that are all-in.

Here are some tips to help you navigate:

  • Understand the 25 percent who resist are not going to change. The greatest leader in the world couldn’t get them to change their minds. Accept it.
  • Understand you can’t make that 25 percent happy—and trying to appease them only encourages them to continue resisting!
  • Don’t give that bottom 25 percent a platform or credibility. Doing so doesn’t give you credibility as much as it gives them the opportunity to undermine you.
  • Create opportunities for the middle 50 percent to spend time with the top 25 percent. Attitudes are contagious, so you might as well have that middle 50 exposed to one worth catching!
  • Ask the 25 percent who support your efforts to influence the 50 percenters. Having others bang the drum always helps.
  • Give credibility and platform to the 25 percent who are supportive. They will help you help the organization move forward.

One piece of advice: never forget that getting people through the tension to something greater is your goal. Some leaders become ego-centric in moments of tension and challenge; as a leader, it’s not about what you want, it’s about what’s best for the organization. Chasing after your own agenda is how leaders escalate tension into conflict!

Successfully navigating a time of tension is possible if leaders are willing to challenge their people. The good news is that leaders who value their people and add value to them daily build up reservoirs of good will that can be drawn from during these moments. The trust you’ve built will not only allow your people to more easily follow you, it will allow you to more easily choose to courageously challenge them to chase after what’s better.

And that’s what leadership is about.


By John Maxwell

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