The 5 Levels of Involvement in Change

by Derek Winter

Such a large amount of the work of Leaders in any sphere is to do with effective communication. The history of project failures, new strategies or change initiatives ground to a halt shows that in many cases those who are affected by the change are not consulted before the start of a project. When you change the way people work, you are challenging their principles, their beliefs and the way they are likely to have done things for many, many years.

However, there is a spectrum of ways to communicate with people as leaders that both affects the effectiveness of the resulting engagement of those people and suits the need of the particular outcomes being sought. The following matrix is based on a design Peter Senge has provided in his famous Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. It shows the different styles of communication a leader can use and their effect on the level of commitment that each will result in.


is used when we Demand Compliance. It is characterised by the message that

This is the plan, there are reasons beyond our influence that mean we have no choice, everyone has to adhere to it.

The audience only have the choice of accepting the instructions or plan. Although this results in the least level of engagement, there are situations when it is a necessary approach. When a fire alarm goes off, it's not appropriate to workshop our response; we want people to get out and get out quickly without asking questions. If our work is influenced by legislation, all we can do is comply, there is little value in brainstorming other approaches.


is used when a leader Seeks Buy-in. It is characterised by the message that

This is the plan, the benefits of which are as follows …

The reasons and purposes are advocated for, but the audience is still expected to respond "Yes" and comply. There will be more commitment than achieved through "Telling" however it is still low levels of engagement and not a safe basis for successful change or progress.


is when we are Inviting Responses. It is characterised by the message that

This is the plan, We think we’ve got the plan right (80%), but we need your input to validate it and we will consider incorporating your idea’s.

While still essentially a top-down style, the leaders intend to find out whether those affected support the process, and opens up for feedback. It's important to note that the vision/direction remain 'untouchable', but perhaps the way in which to reach the goal could be adjusted.


is the first style where leaders actually Request Input. It is characterised by the message that

We are developing a plan and would like to solicit your idea’s and opinions before putting pen to paper.

So often the word 'Consult' get's used, and sets this expectation in the listener when it is not the intention of those in the lead. This approach will strengthen the vision and increase the commitment of those involved, however it is important to understand that a consultative approach takes time and requires commitment at the top-level to shape decisions based on the idea's and opinions offered.


demonstrates a desire to Work as equal partners and is characterised by the message that

We’ve got a blank sheet of paper, lets sit down and develop the plan together.

This will secure the highest level of ownership and commitment from all involved. This approach will require the highest levels of leadership and a willingness to empower those affected and involved in the changes ahead and give them equal billing in decision making.

Knowing when to use which style is one of the keys to success, but just as importantly is all relevant people involved knowing which 'mode' is appropriate and matching their language and approach. When different leaders are communicating different messages it is highly likely that people will be confused and dis-engaged.

It is also worth noting that the further along the spectrum you go towards co-creating, the greater the dependency on individuals leadership capabilities from those spearheading the change or initiative and the greater requirement for leadership capacity from within the group of people affected and involved in the process.