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.

23 Comments

  1. Maysa on February 26, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    No words can express my feelings when I read your writings … it’s all about visualizing each and every leader I counter in my life

  2. Mwesigwa godwin on February 26, 2019 at 3:06 pm

    Am growing

  3. Harold Zimmer on February 26, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    Interesting assessment, great information very informative.

  4. Beybunui Ngum on February 26, 2019 at 7:54 pm

    This is great stuff. If the leaders in my organisation had known this, we would have escaped lots of conflicts. Thanks. I’m getting wiser every day.

  5. KweenSisan on February 27, 2019 at 12:07 am

    Thank you sir, this is just where I’m in, where you think if people like you; they’d willingly follow. Thank you so much for the 25-50-25 principle. Easy to remember too

  6. Jacob on February 27, 2019 at 2:46 am

    Awesome to keep reminding myself as a leader to keep growing .

  7. Natasha Williams on February 27, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Awesome. This is perfect timing for this message.

  8. Eddy Lebetsa on February 27, 2019 at 7:52 am

    Thank you very much for the article its very inspiring and full & of wisdom.

  9. Jennifer on February 27, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    Thank you! That helps me to stay focused and not be swayed by the 25% that is resisting. What you give attention to grows bigness into it so I will pay attention to that which I want to grow! Thanks so much!! ?

  10. NDOR kaadinebari McCoy on February 28, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    Thank you sir, this is awesome and life changing , thank you sir for sharing your knowledge

  11. Craig Peter on February 28, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    I love this rule of change am going to use it

  12. Peter on February 28, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    It’s enlightening
    Thanks so much ?

  13. Dave Kwan on March 1, 2019 at 9:12 am

    Very insightful…words of wisdom.

  14. Doug Tober on March 1, 2019 at 10:41 am

    Early in my career there was the 80/20 principal. 80% would adapt, 10% would refuse, and 10% would undermine any efforts to adapt or improve. Sound advise for all leaders and teams.

  15. Becki Nelson on March 1, 2019 at 10:52 am

    The key? We can’t change anyone – we CAN invite people into the change. So, in general, right up front 25% will accept, 25% will “think about”, and 25% will refuse the invitation.

  16. Liz Ingle on March 1, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    This is such a great post and an easy read. Thank you for the insight and the push to shape a better perspective with the 25-50-25.

  17. Polly C.Ubechu on March 1, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    I like this new 25-50-25 theory.

  18. Gary on March 1, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    Hi John. Thank you for clarifiying how to handle the resisting 25%. Change is about gaining momentum to a direction and as we as leaders learn how to get the early adopters to influnce the middle ground – there’ll be a place with a handcart for the opposing or resistant 25%. You’ve clarified my thinking and I appreciate it. Gary

  19. […] The 25-50-25 Principle of Change – Interesting article whether you lead a small team or the whole […]

  20. Daniel Schneider on March 2, 2019 at 12:21 pm

    Typically, we have always used a 20-60-20 approach. 20% always against, 20% always for, and 60% able to be swayed. The 25-50-25 seems to follow a long standing statistical approach related to below average/average/and above average levels of performance. As a C-Suite executive for a few decades, I found it important to remember that the battle for hearts and minds is in the middle/average group. More often that not, the key to influencing that middle is in controlling the organizational grapevine. This seems to be most effective when middle managers (who are also leaders and not second class citizens) know who the informal leaders are in all three groups and communicate with them early and often.

  21. Denise Boehler on March 4, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    Thank you for such an insightful piece on leadership and conflict. I first learned from Stephen Covey on effectiveness and success through his seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and your article resonates similarly. The parallels of energy and using your efforts wisely are well-stated — and authentically helpful where my own work in animal advocacy is concerned.

    Kindly,

    Denise

  22. Paul on March 7, 2019 at 8:44 pm

    I want to hear from the 25% who disagree. While it might be true that some will resist just to resist, it is also true that some might have well-thought-out fact-based and/or logic-based reasons for disagreeing with a proposed change. Listening will allow me to avoid a bad change or make a good change even better. Not listening is not leadership; it’s bullying.

    • Jason Brooks on March 8, 2019 at 12:44 pm

      Paul–great points. This principle is a rule of thumb, and each leader’s context will certainly drive who you engage and why. In my leadership, I’ve often found the people who disagree and are willing to talk about their disagreements are safely within the 50% of the unconvinced. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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