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Management Theory of Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated May 31, 2022

Kanter's theory suggests that the actions of an organization's leaders play an integral role in employees' attitudes and behaviors.

Business owners and company leaders should always be looking to optimize their work environments. By encouraging a positive outlook, managers can boost team morale, which, in turn, can lead to increased productivity, larger profits and an openness to change. One pioneer of this management style is Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Kanter’s six keys to leading positive change can inspire leaders to motivate their workforce and boost resilience during turbulent times.

The management theory of Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Kanter has written extensively about change management; her management theory provides a framework for fostering positive change in an organization. This model is based on Kanter’s belief that an organization’s operations and its leaders’ actions play integral roles in employees’ attitudes and behaviors. 

The theory proposes that employees exhibit different behaviors based on whether certain structural supports exist. To ensure workers have positive experiences and are open to changes in the workplace, Kanter encourages organizations to follow her six keys:

  1. Show up.
  2. Speak up.
  3. Look up.
  4. Team up.
  5. Never give up.
  6. Lift others up.

How to implement Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s six keys for leading positive change

Kanter’s six keys are guidelines for how business owners and managers should behave if they want to foster positive change and have employee support. Here’s how to implement each of the six keys:

1. Show up.

Kanter argues that leaders who want to make a positive change in their organization need to be present. Rather than hiding in the background, managers should attend more meetings and make themselves visible to their teams. Having a strong presence in the office and in front of your staff builds their trust in you. It also gives workers the confidence to approach managers with their own new ideas and suggestions. An increased presence also gives managers the opportunity to witness workplace morale firsthand.

2. Speak up.

Kanter’s positive change theory states that managers should share information from the top down so that everyone is aware of organizational goals. Spreading knowledge and sharing ideas will lead to innovation and collaboration among staff. Be transparent with workers about updates to policies and any other potential changes. Your team will feel more valued when they hear about changes directly from their supervisors, as opposed to reading it in an email or hearing it secondhand from a co-worker.

When you make company decisions, talk through your process and encourage your team to do the same. Lead discussions with the entire organization about potential changes, and ask for feedback. Employees may offer perspectives or advice you hadn’t considered. Ask team members questions, instead of just doing what you think is in their best interest, and reframe the issues to give everyone new perspectives. 

3. Look up.

As a business owner or leader, you have to focus on your many daily responsibilities. In addition to overseeing a team, managers must ensure they meet specific goals and metrics to support their supervisors. All of this work can make it difficult to actively maintain a strong company culture

To implement a positive change within a team and the business at large, managers must take a step back to get a big-picture view of their staff and workflows. Then, they need to decide on the type of positive change that will boost their team’s morale and make team members receptive to any restructuring. Leaders should have a higher vision of what their team can achieve and should share those objectives with their team members. Having these conversations will help show employees the value of their work and how it helps to achieve the business’s overarching goals. When team members’ perspectives are taken into account, employees are more motivated, leading to increased productivity and bigger profits.

4. Team up.

At the heart of Kanter’s management theory is the idea that people derive power from alliances they form with superiors, peers and subordinates. Sometimes, achievement depends on how well you exert your leadership influence on others. To improve relations between managers and employees, encourage more collaboration among your team, including yourself. Build partnerships in which workers solve problems together, and invite team members to engage in discussions with you and to give their points of view on managerial issues you’re facing.

This collaboration also means making connections outside the office. Set up more social events for your team members to get to know one another on a personal level and not just in terms of the work they do. Team-building activities, like a scavenger hunt or happy hour, can go a long way in forging new friendships and partnerships with your staff. When team members enjoy working with each other, it improves employee engagement. [Does your team work from home? Take advantage of virtual team-building activities.]

Did you know?Did you know? Motivated workers outperform those with low engagement by 202%, according to TeamStage.

5. Never give up.

For business owners to successfully lead a company and managers to execute change properly, they must be resilient in the face of adversity. It’s easy for leaders to encourage communication and create a positive work environment when everything is going well. But when challenges arrive, the strongest managers maintain that perspective; they persist until the job is complete, regardless of the circumstances. 

Change often takes longer than you anticipate, and during the process, it can be hard to discern accomplishments from failures. Be flexible in your approach, however, and maintain your persistence. Resilience will trickle down to your team members, making them mentally stronger and more motivated. Everyone on the team will feel accomplished after seeing the success that resulted from their persistence and fortitude. By empowering your staff in this way, you can also help prevent employee burnout and reduce turnover.

6. Lift others up.

Kanter defines “support” as receiving feedback from peers and management. She contends that staff who feel supported by management will have a greater stake in the organization and, in turn, will be happier and more productive than those who do not feel supported by management. 

It may seem obvious that company leaders should encourage their staff, but many fail to do it. If you give employees goals, you should invest in the training and resources for your staff to achieve those goals and recognize their work, perhaps with a discretionary bonus. Kanter’s theory proposes that team members who feel they have reasonable workloads, exert some control over their work and are rewarded for their contributions will be more engaged.

Regularly share employee success stories with the larger team. Employees who deserve that credit will feel valued, proud and inspired, and employees who hear this praise will admire their co-workers and feel motivated to achieve the same type of success and recognition.

TipTip: To ensure you’re incorporating the right practices into your business, check out other prominent management theories, like those of Mary Parker Follett and Frederick Taylor. You can even mix and match concepts based on your company’s specific needs.

How Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s theory applies to SMBs

Entrepreneurs and small business owners should always look to implement and maintain a positive work environment. This is especially important for new businesses, as they need to establish a company culture and create a set of values to motivate themselves and their teams. If employees don’t have a positive sense of the business and its mission, they are unlikely to perform to the best of their abilities, and the business will falter. 

Kanter’s theory of structural empowerment focuses on strengthening the organization at large rather than the individual. Her beliefs align with the adage “A rising tide lifts all boats.” If the company has a positive culture and is successful, its employees will feel empowered to perform at the highest level and will be more receptive to change. By employing these six keys in their everyday operations, business leaders will be on their way to fostering a successful company.

Chad Brooks contributed to the writing and research in this article. 

Image Credit:

Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.