Change is “merely” the act of altering, modifying, or replacing something with something else that is perceived as being newer or better. In theory, this should be desirable and exciting. In reality, the act of changing is fraught with emotions because the future is (and will always be) unknown.
Change can strike fear and dread in the heart of even the most adventurous soul. And when an organization is attempting change, change resistance based on the as yet unknown eventual outcomes of that demand to change is a common response.
In organizational change, even the change leaders driving that change may have trepidations and fears (often unexpressed) about the route that they have chosen.
Fear and change often go hand in hand – and nowhere was this more profoundly seen than in society’s response to the Covid pandemic.
For 2 years and counting at the time of this article, the most brilliant minds in medicine could not predict how long the pandemic would last or how mutations would affect the severity of the disease.
The most brilliant minds in business could likewise not precisely predict how the pandemic would forever change the pre-pandemic “business as usual” into a new (and unknown) “new normal.”
No wonder stress levels and burnout continue to escalate as we move out of the pandemic and into an as yet unknown future.
Change Has Been (and Continues to Be) the New Status Quo
Jack Welch famously prophesized decades ago that companies must either “change or die.” Not surprisingly, this was NOT met with a great deal of support by business leaders!
Covid shone a bright light on the need for organizations to continuously monitor their environment and pivot quickly in order to survive. In other words, “change or die.”
But throughout my consulting practice, I’ve discovered that much of the change management advice — although well-meaning — is based on assumptions about what “change” is and how to “do it.” Essentially, the advice focuses on the creation of a symbiotic relationship within the workforce so that everyone is on board, compliant, and enthusiastic about the change. In other words, everyone should be singing “kum ba yah” as they greet the change initiative.
To achieve this, change management advisors often recommend that:
- Change resistance should be immediately squashed…or else those employees should be “released”.
- A logical argument will persuade the “right” people to come on board…if not, they are resistors (see above).
- Actions should be laser focused on what you want to change…any ripple effects can be dealt with later (usually in an additional change initiative).
- Creating change requires outside input…in other words, new hires who are not as “ingrained” within the organization’s current culture.
- If all else fails, change leaders must be “tough” (or even ruthless)…even if it means that frustrated star performers seek employment elsewhere.
Unfortunately, change leaders are still surprised and confounded when their employees don’t embrace the change initiative — despite having followed this advice. Perhaps it is because these recommendations overlook or minimize the most important part of the equation: the employees who must change.
As the Covid pandemic taught us, change is constant. Change is continuous. And change is now the new status quo.
To survive in “the new normal” requires the capacity to pivot – quickly.
To be totally transparent, I don’t believe that a “silver bullet” exists to introduce sustainable organizational change. While there are best practices that an help change leaders direct the initiative, these practices must be contextualized to your organization in order to be effective. Best practices cannot simply be transferred into the organization without modifying 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 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. Veterans have a historic knowledge of the success or failure of past initiatives. New employees bring their experience from competitors to shed light on other ways to identify and respond to the problem. Why would any change leader ignore their experience and insights when creating an action plan for change?
What to Do Instead: Change resistors’ ideas should be acknowledged and as potentially valuable “canaries in the coal mine”: forewarning the potential obstacles that can ultimately sabotage the change initiative. By considering these insights and engaging in a two-way dialogue, it is possible that these resistors can be transformed into powerful change advocates — but 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 employees will gladly 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. Change triggers our sense of security and (potentially) well-being, so there will always be an emotional component to organizational change. While logic and rational decision-making are part of what makes us human, we are also emotional beings. As a result, each individual employee’s response to requests to change will be ruled by their beliefs, values, and the all-important WIIFM (“what’s in it for me”).
What to Do Instead: Effective change leaders focus on both the tangible and intangible aspects of a change initiative: the bottom line results as well as the corresponding cultural changes. 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. Employees’ fears about how they will be affected by the change stem from fear of potential job loss, demotion, or even the closing of their office location. These fears must not only be addressed, but also addressed within the strategic action plan.
Myth #3: Change occurs in isolation. Organizational change can be compartmentalized and addressed sequentially, making it easier to forecast and address potential effects on other areas of the business at a later time.
Why This Is a Myth: Organizations are constantly evolving, cross-functional, intradependent entities. Think outside the box of compartmentalized change and consider the obvious and not-so-obvious consequences. Well-run companies have created a synergy in their workflows between departments. As a result, changes in one part of the organization can (and will) have effects on seemingly unrelated aspects of the business.
What to Do Instead: Organizational changes affect the lifeblood of the company on all levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. For example, a “tweak” in a company’s product can (and often will) affect not only the manufacturing process, but also the sales, human resources, customer service, and marketing functions. A seemingly “little” change om a department can destabilize interactions with other functional areas, wreaking havoc in short- and long-term functioning.
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 initiatives, 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 change – and perhaps the reason why over 70% of change initiatives fail. New hires in senior leadership positions 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. Understanding these critical nuances takes time. When change is led by someone new to the organization, 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 Do Instead: Encourage organizational change by building the leadership of the change advocates within your current workforce. 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 identify the real underlying problems), but they usually have some great (but often untapped) ideas on how to improve things. As a result, they an be great resources for insights into what is broken, why it is broken, and how to transform the organization (or if it is even necessary). They just need to be asked and listened to.
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 determination and willpower.
Why This Is a Myth: Change is never accomplished by simply willing it to happen. And you can’t bully people into changing. Successful change only occurs by allowing all those who are affected by the change to move through the transition period that connects the current situation to the desired future – no one navigates this “no man’s land” without a clear road map comprised of all the necessary resources that will support movement toward the desired destination.
What to Do Instead: Change leaders need to incorporate the Four R’s throughout the change initiative’s planning and implementation phases in order to ensure that the company will be able to move through the dreaded transition period:
(1) A Road map that depicts the desired path to achieve the goal, identifies the expected ripple effects throughout the organization, and creates sufficient flexibility to pivot in order to stay on-track when the inevitable obstacles emerge.
(2) A compelling Reason for the change initiative that addresses not only the tangible financial needs but also the intangible emotional needs of employees who must change their work processes and assumptions in order for the changes to “stick.”
(3) Sufficient Resources to support employees as they move through the transition period – including staff, technology, 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 your employees’ often Herculean efforts to change.
Organizational change is not for the feint of heart. The process of change can be confusing, confounding, frustrating, and even terrifying. The first step is to debunk these five prevalent myths about change and replace them with proactive beliefs. In this way, both change leaders and change targets will be more likely to listen to the rational 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 is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout. Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout. A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD: More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).