Want to Change the Strategy? Change the Leader

Topic(s): business strategy, change management, leadership, teams
Publication: The Leadership Quarterly
Article: The effects of leadership change on team escalation of commitment
Authors: H. Kalmanovich-Cohen, M.J. Pearsall, J.S. Christian
Reviewed by: Julian B. Allen

Working on a team often requires setting up workflow structures to ensure tasks are completed on time and in the most effective manner. However, these same processes can lead a team to stick to a singular path and fail to recognize emerging issues or concerns. As such, a team’s ability to adapt and recognize needed changes is often a key contributor to long-term performance and success.


Focusing on a team’s ability to change and adapt, researchers (Kalmanovich-Cohen, Pearsall, and Christian, 2018) studied escalation of commitment. This refers to the level of increased investment in initial plans or tactics, and helps us understand why teams stick to their initial plans. Through two studies, the authors demonstrate that being committed to an initial plan can lead teams to increase their resource investment to the plan (escalation of commitment) and decrease their recognition of counterproductive tactics or errors (error reduction). However, they find that bringing in a new leader to replace the previous leader can promote a lower commitment to the initial plan and subsequently reduce escalation of commitment and induce error reduction.

The explanation for these results is simple. Teams generally benefit from developing processes, timelines, and systematic approaches to tasks. After allocating time and resources to develop initial plans, teams can become blind to the need for (or existence of) other approaches. Instead, they double-down on their initial plan. On the other hand, leadership change can serve to facilitate team reflection by avoiding further investment in the same strategies. The authors propose that the new leader is not liable for the success of the initial course of action. However, if a pre-existing leader were to suggest a new course of action, it may come across as inconsistent with the leader’s previous behavior.


By understanding the impact of team commitment to an initial plan, these studies lead to several practical suggestions for organizations. The most straightforward suggestion, as proposed by the authors, is a simple change in leadership. Changing leadership can facilitate team adaptation. However, apart from the outcome of team adaptation and reflection, the authors suggest the importance of anticipating the impact of leadership change. If team adaptation is needed, organizations can plan and determine the appropriate time to change leaders. Additionally, to further facilitate team adaptation with the leadership change, additional interventions can be implemented, such as reflexivity training – guided reflection for both the leader and team.


Kalmanovich-Cohen, H., Pearsall, M. J., & Christian, J. S. (2018). The effects of leadership change on team escalation of commitment. The Leadership Quarterly, 29(5), 597-608.