If you want to improve your team’s performance, react to changing market demands or gain a competitive edge, you will at some point have to introduce change to your organization. You’ll need to ask people to adopt new procedures, learn additional skills, or take on unfamiliar technology. And if your organization is like most others, you’ll probably have a hard time with it.
According to 2013 Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI Survey, a little more than half of companies who introduce change initiatives achieve their objectives, and only a quarter maintain the benefits long-term. Facing a 75% probability of eventual failure, it’s no wonder a lot of companies just give up on change before they start.
But in today’s business world, you pretty much change or die (eventually). So it makes sense to understand why such initiatives fail and what you can do about it.
Why people resist change
We often hear that front-line employees resist change, but we have to remember managers are human too and they’ll have the same natural aversion to new directions many of us do. Here are a few of the common reasons people push back:
Change is being forced on them; they lose their autonomy.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, points out that people need to feel a sense of control over their work in order to stay motivated. When changes come out of the blue and seems to be forced from the top down, people get the sense they don’t have control over how they do their jobs and try to regain their autonomy by resisting.
They fear the unknown.
When people don’t know how a change will affect them, they get concerned and dig in their heels. It’s the devil you know . . .
It takes a lot of energy to change, and they don’t see the advantage.
Try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. It’s a simple change, but it takes a lot of concentration and you don’t do a very good job at first. Change at work can be the same way. It takes effort to learn new skills and put in the time to get good at them. If there’s no clear and motivating advantage, why bother?
They’ve seen these new ideas come and go.
In some organizations, the “change initiative” comes and goes once a year. Or even once a quarter. People learn to see it as a no more than a flurry of management distraction that never comes to anything.
They naturally fall back into old habits.
Habits are powerful because they let you accomplish tasks on autopilot. Even if employees are willing to adopt new changes, they’ll unknowingly slip back into old ways for a while. And it takes a lot of effort to break out of those patterns.
What you can do about it
All these reasons for resisting change doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. It just means you have to approach it carefully.
Involve employees in planning the change
Many new initiatives come out of a manager offsite or a series of closed-door strategy meetings. But if you want to achieve a company goal, get the company involved. Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes for the Harvard Business Review, “I have learned there is incredible value when we get our associates involved in creating the solutions rather than just expecting them to execute on whatever management has decided they should do.”
He admits it takes a little more time, but greatly cuts down on the amount of change management they do. Plus, involving your team preserves their autonomy, which in turn enhances their motivation and commitment to your goals.
Focus on one small change at a time.
A recent study in the International Journal of Project Management found that in engineering and construction management, employees resisted less when changes were smaller in scope. Not surprisingly, smaller changes are easier to handle.
Of course, you can’t announce a sexy, sweeping initiative if you’re just making small changes one at a time, but you might accomplish more in the end.
Communicate the change, its advantages, and its consequences.
Leona Barr-Jones, Operations Director for Focus7 International writes for the Training Zone, “People will only take active steps toward the unknown if they genuinely believe and feel that the risks of standing still are greater than those of moving forward.”
Most of the time, the reasons for a change seem to be guarded like national secrets. The Towers Watson survey found that only 40% of front line managers felt their leaders did a good job of explaining the reasons for a decision. Imagine how many front line workers got the message.
But research has shown that good communications makes a big impact on resistance to change. A recent study of 1,780 police officers undergoing organizational and technology changes found that clear communication from leadership combined with giving the officers some latitude in how they adopted changes greatly increased positive attitudes toward the new order.
In his article for the Harvard Business Review, Professor Gary P. Pisano agrees and adds that management needs to address how company priorities drove the decision and what trade-offs will be involved.
Keep communicating long after you think you’re done.
Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage, Enhanced Edition: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, explains
“The only way for people to embrace a message is to hear it over a period of time, in a variety of different situations, and preferably from different people. That’s why great leaders see themselves as Chief Reminding Officers as much as anything else. Their top two priorities are to set the direction of the organization and then to ensure that people are reminded of it on a regular basis.”
After the fanfare of a “great new direction” your team will need need regular messages to nudge them from old ways of doing business to new ones. Plus, if you’re asking them to learn new skills or technology, they need to know you’re committed and their efforts won’t be wasted.
Changing a whole collection of humans naturally wired to resist may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but successful organizations have shown us it’s not impossible. And if we think we can survive in business without it, we’ll have to start with changing our minds.
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