Change Button - Blue

We know that toddlers have very different needs than adults.  We know that we’ve changed some of our ideas as we’ve grown.  We even know that the career that we started out in may not necessarily be the career that we retire from.  Change is, therefore, a natural part of life.

If humans inherently evolve, so, too, must organizations.

So when why does organizational change create such havoc for the employees who are the change leaders and change targets?

While change is rapidly becoming the new status quo in the modern workplace, the act of changing is rarely easy for the employees individually and the organization as a whole.  When we radically adjust the way that the work is done in order to create the opportunity for newly set goals, employees often suffer a loss in their self-esteem, self-image, or even their own professional goals.

Change, although constant, is nonetheless scary
because we must let go of the known
but have not yet taken hold of the as yet unknown.  

The reason for an organization to radically change the way in which it does business or the markets that it serves is often precipitated on shifts in its external environment.  Examples are seemingly endless:  A new competitor has entered the marketplace and “stolen” some key customers.  A new law has drastically challenged the current payroll strategy.  A product defect has created a public relations nightmare that has tanked quarterly sales.

But organizations change not only in response to external stressors.  They also change in response to internal shifts, such as a new vision, business model, or newly identified target market.

Whether the reason for the change is external or internal, the arguments made in support of the change are usually based on what the company “should” do – whether they want to or not!  The reason to embark on the change is, therefore, based on quantitative or financial metrics that demand immediate action in order to ensure the solvency and sustainability of the enterprise.

Why Organizational Change Is Hard 

If all of the arguments make logical sense, why is it so hard for the workforce to change?  So what if employees aren’t really on board with the change initiative?

The organization can only change when its people change.

When a change initiative demands that employees significantly alter their normal behaviors, habits, or routines, there will be push back.  Change leaders must anticipate that this will occur and not mislabel it as “change resistance.”

The initial push back of employees can provide valuable insights into the nature of not only the change initiative, but also the underlying reasons and anticipated outcomes.  However, these insights can only occur if change leaders actively solicit employee feedback before, during, and after the change.

Unfortunately, in most change initiatives, many of these change resistors are ostracized or transitioned out of the organization.

But this push back is a natural part of our human nature.  In fact, such initial resistance is somewhat of a hardwired response to change.  Just like the 3-year-old who crosses his arms and shouts “No!” when it’s time to go to bed, the logical arguments used by parents (or why sleep is necessary in order to avoid crankiness and unhappiness) usually fall on deaf ears.

In other words, although the parents know that the child should go to bed, he doesn’t want to go to bed.  Even though he might be forced to go to bed, it is a time-consuming, emotionally draining ordeal for both parent and child.

The same can be true of employees who are told what they should do as a part of the change initiative…but really don’t want to do.

Addressing what we should do as well as what we want to do should be an important consideration in any change initiative.

Addressing the “Should Do” of Change

Corporate leaders often have very logical, reasonable, and comprehensive reasons to change the long-term strategy and/or daily operations of their organizations.  They often argue their case via spreadsheets, pie charts, bar graphs, trend charts, and any other data-driven tool that can support the rational reasons underlying the need to change.

While analysis is a critical part of the planning stage of any change initiative, the role of the change manager cannot rely solely on analysis to motivate workers to want to change.  Organizational change is a major undertaking that can take years to fully incorporate into the existing culture – and can be emotionally draining for the entire workforce (including both change leaders and change targets).

Although threats of what could happen if the organization doesn’t change can initially inspire fear-based change, people don’t like to live their lives in fear.  The “doom and gloom” prophecies that threaten workers’ sense of security—either now or in the future – will often result in key employees and high achievers “jumping ship” to an employment situation that is less frightening.

To sustain the long-term motivation necessary to change an organization, the focus needs to shift away from change management that tells them what they must do.  Instead, change leaders need to inspire employees and seek their participation in determining the best way to create the change as painlessly and effectively as possible.

Because employees are involved and heard in all stages of the change initiative, they will be much more likely to embrace the changes (rather than resist them).  Participative management, therefore, is critical in inspiring employees to want to change.

The logical “should” of a change initiative is only one part of the change equation.  Intellectual arguments are insufficient to inspire workers to put forth the additional effort, energy, and committed needed to transform the workplace.

Addressing the “Want to Do” of Change

People need to be motivated to change – and motivation is not only inherently internal, it is also often very emotional.

Addressing this “want to do” part of the change equation requires tapping into WIIFM:  “What’s In It For Me?”  Unless employees are confident that there will be a benefit to them as a result of the change, it is doubtful that they will commit wholeheartedly to the necessary actions that will radically transform the organization.

In contrast, employees will often “go the extra mile” when they understand the value of the change initiative AND they have participated in the planning and implementation activities related to that initiative.  If the change initiative succeeds, then they succeed, too.

When people participate in identifying what needs to change, they are more likely to embrace the necessary activities that will create that change.  After all, if it’s something that I recommended, then I have a vested interest in ensuring that it will lead to the desired outcome.

3 Ways to Inspire Employees to Change 

  1. Take the time to involve employees in the planning stages of the change initiative.  Be sure that they represent the various functional areas of the organization and come from different levels within the organizational hierarchy.  Not only will this assist with employee buy-in, but it will also generate some insights into the implementation plan that can easily be overlooked by senior leaders who are not intimately involved with daily operations.
  2. Treat employees like adults, not children.  Relying solely on the “should’s” of a change initiative is the equivalent of a parent dictating actions “because they said so.”  Push back is inevitable.  Instead, recognize that your employees are your only non-duplicatable competitive advantage and they were hired because they have expertise to perform their jobs well.  Tap into that knowledge by respecting their input and concerns.
  3. Schedule two-way conversations throughout the initiative in order to address employee needs and fears associated with the change.   Announcing the change via a lecture by the CEO or an article in the newsletter are examples of one-way communication.  Such messages to change can easily be interpreted as being talked at rather than talking with.  But two-way conversations in live town hall meetings or even discussion boards in a special change-related online chat room enable better identification of the workforce’s WIIFM’s.  Once these WIIFM’s are identified, they can be used to modify, expand, remove, or add elements to the change initiative that will continuously encourage workers to want to do what is necessary to create the necessary changes.

Although these three suggestions take time, they can create the foundation for tremendous future benefits in efficiency and effectiveness during the implementation phase.  Employee push back and resistance may still occur, but, through the use of participative management throughout the change initiative, it tends to be much less intense.

While the decision to change might be logical, the act of changing can be highly emotional.  Some changes we should do, but we won’t actually do what is necessary unless we want to do it.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

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