Oh no! Not change!

Graphic of a clock segment in black and white with "time for change" written around the edge; the hands point to "change" which is written in red.It’s a thing: senior leaders announce a strategic change, and the office tilts slightly as everyone rolls their eyes at the same time. (Okay, if you’re all on Zoom, the video grid wobbles.)

It’s all too common for employees to “welcome” announcements of change with a solid dose of skepticism, not to say cynicism. Most organizations have experienced too many iterations of change initiatives that have struggled to get going, and then either slowly slid into oblivion or ended up being much less than originally planned. I cringe to think of the time, money, and employee energy, trust, and goodwill that’s squandered.

Why does this happen? And what can be done about it?

Those are two very BIG questions, of course, far bigger than can be answered in a single brief article. But let’s look at some highlights to give you a few tools to work with.

Why #1: lack of context

At a networking event many years ago, I met a consultant who told me she always advises her clients not to communicate about change, but to just “go ahead and do it.”

I think my eyeballs may have dropped out of my head; I know my chin hit the floor.

Many people will tell you that the primary reason why change fails in organizations is because of a failure to communicate.

That’s true – but it’s also vague, and doesn’t address the question of why communication fails.

First, by the time the leadership team responsible for formulating the change initiative has completed all the planning, they know the situation inside and out. There’s a thing called “the curse of knowledge” that applies here, which is when someone knows something so well that they forget what it’s like to not know. This causes communication efforts to jump into the middle or even the end of the explanation instead of starting at the beginning.

And secondly, by the time they’ve done all that work on understanding the need and planning the outcome, they’re ready to move on to the next urgent issue on their list. I won’t necessarily go so far as to say they’re bored with the change initiative they’re now handing down to their teams, but … yeah.

These two factors (and others, of course) lead to ineffective and incomplete communication to the people responsible for actually doing the work.

What #1: crafting communication

It takes time to communicate effectively – which is another reason why it sometimes doesn’t happen well – but it’s worth every minute. You’ll gain time by taking the time up front.

There are five components to consider as a change leader.

  1. The vision of and need for change. Why are you undertaking it? What’s the desired outcome? Why will it be better than what you have today?
  2. The consequences of not changing. People are not fond of loss; losing something you have is psychologically twice as painful as the satisfaction of gaining something new. Painting a clear picture of what will be lost if the change doesn’t happen increases motivation for following through.
  3. What will stay the same? A sense of continuity is important for people to feel confident that there’s still a solid place to stand. Let people know, explicitly, what’s going to stay the same as you move forward.
  4. The expectations for performance. What will they need to learn? What will they need to do differently? What support can they expect to receive? How will they be measured, held accountable, and rewarded? And, of course, what’s the time frame?
  5. Can people ask questions and raise concerns – without fear of reprisal – and what’s the process for doing so?

Why #2: good ol’ resistance

Resistance is part of the change process.

Let me repeat that: resistance is part of the change process.

Even those who are on board with the change will have at least a little resistance to actually taking the necessary steps.

Firstly, there’s anxiety around what will happen. Will I lose my job? Will I be able to keep up with all the new things I’ll need to learn and do? Will I get in trouble if something goes wrong? And so on.

Secondly, there’s the natural reluctance to let go of the present. Even if the “now” isn’t working, there’s still a familiarity and comfort in the “now” – and there’s a sense of identity that often isn’t consciously recognized, but is nonetheless a significant factor. Who are we, the employees of this company? And what does the company itself stand for? Is that sense of “selfhood,” of identity, going to be retained – or lost – as we move forward with the change?

These two factors (and others, of course) create resistance – and it’s unhelpful and unrealistic to expect employees to just bulldoze through, especially since it’s all largely unconscious.

What #2: addressing resistance

All too often, I’ve seen senior leaders who believe they can say “Go forth and do this change!”, and it will … just happen.

Unfortunately, what’s more likely is that everyone will agree to the CEO’s face (of course), but then resist and undercut the initiative in various ways when the CEO is out of the room.

And I’m still seeing companies where the old, tired, dysfunctional myth that “emotions don’t belong in the workplace” remains prevalent.

Change is an emotional process, and resistance is a compound and complex emotion.

Here are five things you can do as a change leader.

  1. Acknowledge out loud that there’s anxiety and there are concerns. Invite people to speak out about theirs. Walk the talk by describing some of yours.
  2. Make sure the communication plan includes all the things I mention above – and add to the plan as people tell you of their concerns and perceptions of risk, explaining what’s being done to mitigate those concerns. This benefits everyone, not only those who have raised their voice.
  3. Instead of painting a rosy glow, ask the powerful question: “What’s the worst thing about this for you?” It seems counter-intuitive to ask people to focus on the “worst,” but it helps you understand them better, and it helps them become less emotional and more logical (“worst” is a logical compare-and-contrast brain function). And you can then include what they tell you in your communication and risk management plans.
  4. Allow space for grief – yes, I said grief – because all change, even good, positive change, includes grief for what’s being left behind.
  5. Celebrate every step forward, even the small ones. Acknowledge achievement and use that acknowledgement to reinforce the need to keep going and to reiterate what could be lost if momentum dips.

Change isn’t easy

But it doesn’t have to be as much of a struggle as it often tends to be.

In this article, I’ve given a very brief (very! brief!) overview of some of the skills of change leadership – and I’ll end by saying that change leadership is different from change management. For change initiatives to be successful, you need both.

Change leadership is my thing. And if you’re facing changes in your organization (who isn’t?!), contact me and we’ll set a time to talk.