2018-08-09 08:12:46 Robert E. Smith, PhD, Founder, The Change Shop
One of the things change agents try to avoid like the plague are change failures. Not only are failed change initiatives bad for the organization you might be working in or consulting for, its simply not great reputation-wise to have change failures in your wake. No matter what, trying and failing to lead a successful change or transformation effort can lead to invaluable learning and insights. That said, a good list of reasons for organizational change failures can come in handy for identifying factors that may be present in an organization that might result in change failure. This way you can get ahead of (and avoid) some of the more common pitfalls. The following list is by no means complete but it will provide some key resistance factors to watch out and plan for.
Resistance factor #1 it used to work
It’s common to hear folks say that people are naturally resistant to change. Rather than resisting change for resistance sake, team members will often resist because they do not believe the case for a better approach or alternative has been made. In fact, this is a completely rational mindset for change resistance. As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Now if you’re a leader or change agent tasked with moving things in a new direction, this can be a daunting challenge. One approach for tackling this mindset is to ensure you have made a strong, easily understood case for why the change is necessary. A quick test is whether you believe your own case for change. It’s difficult to sell something you don’t believe in yourself. Another approach is to make the case for “Why Now?”. Often, effective change leaders will have insights into shifts in market trends or client demands that may not (yet) be fully realized across all levels of the organization. In these cases, it is important to link the need for change to how and why the current way of doing things may no longer be effective going forward.
Resistance factor #2 emotional attachment
Another reason people resist change is because they are emotionally tied to the old way of doing things. Similar to resistance factor #1 above, team members may remember ‘the good old days’ when the current process saved the day or prevented a catastrophe. In cases like these it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of past practices. Often, change leaders make the mistake of throwing the proverbial ‘current state baby’ out with the bath water instead of duly acknowledging the previous hard work and effort that may have been required to get things working well or, at least, to a better place. Change leaders can overcome emotional attachment resistance by listening (in my forthcoming book, Selling Change, I call these listening tours) then communicating the benefits of the current state and past efforts while addressing the need for more of different changes to move the organization to an even better place in the future. Of course, genuine acknowledgment is key. A perfunctory or trite nod to past practices will not be sufficient especially when there is a strong emotional connection to the old ways of doing thing.
Resistance barrier #3 previous investment (sunk costs)
Social psychologists refer to this as the sunk cost effect and it essentially means that people are less willing to move on to something new or different after they’ve put a significant amount of time, effort and attention into the previous way of doing things. On a basic human level this makes complete sense. If you’ve invested hundreds of hours in rebuilding that classic car in the garage or building up your social media profile, most people will not readily let those things go even if it’s in their best long-term interest to do so. Again, this is a significant barrier to organizational change that change leaders often must address. While there’s no single, simple answer for addressing this type of change resistance a good starting point is to assess a cross-section of team members to gauge what types of sunk costs they may have may cause them to be hesitant about moving in a different direction. By doing this, you can gain a better sense of how to target key messages to help them overcome resistance and form commitments to new ways of doing things.
What about you?
What are your experiences with some of these resistance factors? Are there any other annoying change resistance factors you’ve encountered?