Organizational change. These few words strike dread in the heart of not only the employees who are being asked to change, but also the change leaders who are in charge of those changes.
Throughout my practice, I’ve discovered that some well-change management advice — although well-meaning — often is based on assumptions about what change is and how to “do it.” Unfortunately, change leaders are still surprised and confounded when their employees don’t embrace the change initiative — despite having followed this advice.
To be totally transparent, I don’t believe that there is any one “silver bullet” way to create organizational change. I do agree that there are certain best practices. However, I don’t believe that best practices can simply be dropped into another organization without modification for company culture, mission, and vision.
So if we can’t simply emulate what worked for other organizations, should change leaders blindly embark on creating transformation without an action plan?
Obviously, the answer is no. As a starting point for change, consider these five common myths about organizational change that focus on assumptions on what it is, why it often fails, and what to do instead.
Myth #1: Change resistors must be silenced. According to many change leaders, organizational change will only succeed IF you have “the right people on the bus.” In other words, all employees – regardless of their position on the organizational hierarchy or tenure with the company – must “get on board” or risk being removed from the organization.
Why This Is a Myth: For the most part, change resistors usually have some very good reasons to support their reluctance to fully embrace the proposed changes. Why would any change leader ignore their experience and insights?
What to Think Instead: Change resistors’ ideas should be considered because they can be valuable canaries in the coal mine: forewarning the potential obstacles that can sabotage the change initiative. But if change leaders can incorporate the insights of these resistors, they can potentially become become powerful change advocates — but this will occur only if the change leaders address their fears and concerns. Click here for more information on what I call the “Change Resistance Zoo.”
Myth #2: If you present a logical argument, then people will change. Business tends to be driven by quantitative metrics focused on achieving tangible results, such as financial profitability, market growth, etc. These tangibles are easier to track and tend to be the primary focus of most change initiatives.
Why This Is a Myth: Many change leaders lament that there would be fewer problems if only human beings would consistently behave in a “rational” or “logical” way – but it’s not in our DNA. While human beings are logical and capable of rational decision-making, we are also emotional beings. How employees will respond to requests to change will be ruled by their beliefs, values, and the all-important WIIFM: “what’s in it for me.”
What to Think Instead: Effective change leaders focus on both the tangible and intangible aspects of a change initiative. Employees’ fears stemming around potential job loss, demotion, or even closing of their office location must not only be addressed, but also incorporated within the strategic action plan. You can’t ask workers to embrace the destabilization of their work environment without addressing the question of what’s in it for them as a result.
Myth #3: Change occurs in isolation. Organizational change can be compartmentalized, which makes it much easier to forecast any potential effects on other areas of the business.
Why This Is a Myth: Organizations are constantly evolving, cross-functional, intradependent entities. As a result, changes in one part of the organization can (and will) have effects on seemingly unrelated aspects of the business.
What to Think Instead: Organizational changes affect the company’s lifeblood on strategic, operational, and tactical levels. A “tweak” in a company’s product can (and will) affect not only the manufacturing process, but also the sales, human resources, customer service, and marketing functions. A seemingly “little” change that can wreak havoc in a company’s short- and long-term functioning. Think outside the box of compartmentalized change and consider the obvious and not-so-obvious consequences.
Myth #4: To create transformational change, you must bring in outsiders to lead it. Because the company’s culture is often the target of transformational change, the only way to get a “fresh perspective” is to bring in change leaders from outside the organization – maybe from the same industry, but maybe not.
Why This Is a Myth: This is probably the most pervasive myth in transformational organizational change – and perhaps the reason why over 70% of change initiatives fail. Outsiders may have new ideas BUT they also are not intimately familiar with how things currently work in the organization and why they are being done in this particular manner. As a result, there is often a lack of appreciation for the company’s history and an ignorance of the power of the company’s formal and informal network leaders.
What to Think Instead: Consider tapping your current workforce for ideas on how to transform the organization – rather than thinking of them as change resistors. Current employees have a great deal of intangible but persuasive capital within the company: not only do they understand what is currently happening (which means that they are uniquely qualified to highlight the underlying problems), but they usually have some great (but often untapped) ideas on how to improve things. Encourage organizational change by building the leadership of your change advocates.
Myth #5: You can create change by sheer force of will. If you really want to change, then you will be able to change – it’s all about willpower.
Why This Is a Myth: If only change could be accomplished simply by willing it to happen. It can’t. Successful change occurs by moving through the transition period that connects the past to the desired future – no one navigates this “no man’s land” without a clear road map that includes the necessary resources to reach the destination.
What to Think Instead: Change leaders need to incorporate the Four R’s throughout the planning and implementation process in order to ensure that the company will be able to move through the dreaded transition period:
(1) A Road map that outlines the desired path to achieve the goal, the potential effects throughout the organization, and built-in flexibility to stay on-track when obstacles emerge.
(2) A compelling Reason for the change initiative that addresses tangible financial needs as well as the intangible emotional needs of employees.
(3) Sufficient Resources to support employees as they move through the transition period – including manpower, relevant technology, sufficient financial resources, and emotional support.
(3) Rewards that celebrate the short-term wins along the way to transformation; this can be financial or (perhaps even more important) time off or public recognition for employees’ often Herculean efforts to change.
Organizational change is not for the feint of heart. It can be confusing, confounding, frustrating, and terrifying. The first step is to debunk these five prevalent myths about the process of change. By replacing them with more proactive beliefs, both change leaders and change targets will be more likely to listen to the arguments as to why they must temporarily destabilize their current work environment in order to create one that is better for both the organization and them.
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 www.gapuleo.com.