This is why 70% of change management strategies fail

Change is inevitable

This is why 70% of change management strategies fail

by Wesley Connor

Out of the cave
Change is inevitable. Whether we’re talking about climate change, politics, the global economy, or the ever-changing world or work, everything seems to be unprecedented these days - and totally unpredictable. Scary, isn’t it? If you think so, you’re not alone.

You see, our brains are hard-wired to avoid change. The world around us might have evolved at lightning speed but our brains haven’t caught up. In many ways, we’re still programmed like our cave-dwelling ancestors and no 3-day training workshop on change management or brilliantly-crafted communication is going to fully overwrite that programming. When our amygdala’s “fight or flight” instinct gets triggered, it runs the show. That would be fine if it was only triggered by real threats, but what our reptilian brain perceives as danger has evolved from physical peril to psychological peril, and for many of us “change” is the modern equivalent of a huge bear outside the cave. We’re not in a hurry to go out and embrace it!

Isabel Briggs Meyers concluded that only 5.5% of the human population innately embraces change. The rest of us are waiting anxiously in the cave for change to pass by and hopefully not notice us. Unfortunately, the psychological safety of our metaphorical “cave” no longer exists, and whether it’s a new manager, strategy, acquisition, merger, campaign or whatever, we find ourselves facing down our perceived predator, “change”, with only our disengagement to hide behind. In a VUCA1 world, the ability to lead through change is truly an organization’s most valuable asset, a leader’s greatest competency, and will determine those companies that thrive and those that become extinct.  

The key to change
So… how are we doing? Well, not great. A Gallup study found that 70% of all change management strategies fail - a statistic that although disturbing, did not surprise me. As a Director, People Development and executive coach with well over 1000 hours of coaching individuals and teams through the change process, there is one thing that I’ve learned for sure – and that is, change is emotional.

This is supported by the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman who won a Noble Prize in Economic Sciences for proving that humans (regardless of race, age, gender, nationality, etc.) make decisions emotionally first. Furthermore, we have five times as many negative neural networks as positive ones so we have an inbuilt “negativity bias”. This was described by Dr. Evian Gordon as “the phenomenon by which humans pay more attention and give more weight to negative rather than positive experience or other kinds of information”. This means that the decision we make to embrace a new leader, a new job, a new business strategy, or a new organizational structure will be made with our emotions first, and we’re more likely to give weight to the perceived negative, “dangerous” aspects of the change than we give to the positive ones. By the time our logical brain kicks in, we’ve already made our minds up and fear has won the day.

And yet, most of our classic change management models are predominantly focused on the intellectual requirements of change. This is further compounded by the fact that most organizations are “emotion-phobic” and cling desperately to the belief that work is not an appropriate place to talk about feelings – especially those perceived as negative. Opening the “feelings” drawer at work can be terrifying, and much like the bottom drawers of our desks, there’s no telling what will be released once opened.

Which brings me to my main point: if it’s been proven that we make decisions emotionally first and we pay more attention to the negative than the positive, all while working in organizations that are uncomfortable engaging with the emotions of their employees, how can successful change ever occur?

Here are four tips to help connect your employees’ hearts to the change management process and increase the likelihood that you’ll end up in that top 30% of successful change.

Take a bottom up approach
The entry of the millennial generation into the workforce officially marked the death of change strategy being made from the seclusion of the executive ivory tower. If your change strategies are being made exclusively from behind the closed doors of your executive boardroom, you can expect the change to go no further than those guarded doors.

When we allow people to have an active voice in decision making, we empower them to take ownership of the change process and its results. This sense of inclusion eases our defenses and creates the psychological safety required to embrace change. Part of the fear of change is grappling with the unknown. By engaging the workforce in discussions about the hard facts and the possibilities for the future, we make the unknown, known, and therefore less frightening. 

In team coaching there is a metaskill we call “Deep Democracy”, which advocates that every voice counts (yes, even the marginalized ones) and that what’s true in one part of an organization, is true everywhere. At the end of the day, most people just want to be heard and know that their experience in the organization matters. It’s important to note that pretending to include everyone and then doing what you were always going to do anyway is called the “illusion of inclusion” and will land you straight into the 70% of failed change strategies. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t really want to know, don’t ask.

You can also support a bottom up approach by doing any of the following:

  • Interview representatives from all levels affected by the change with the intention of understanding what impact this will have on them, what’s important to them and what they need in order to feel empowered through this change.
  • Create a “change taskforce” consisting of members of the executive team and a stakeholder representative from every level and department within the organization.
  • Solicit feedback throughout the change process through employee surveys, engagement interviews and/or team facilitated sessions.
  • Communicate back to the organization what you heard through the feedback process and what actions/decisions you’re prepared to take, and when exactly they will be implemented.

Create a compelling vision for change
Sometimes, in a misdirected attempt to “ease the blow” of change, we roll it out to the organization in small pieces. This comes from the mistaken belief that change is more palatable to employees if it happens gradually. This “death by a thousand cuts” results in mistrust, paranoia, change fatigue, disengagement, lost productivity, and ultimately, the loss of psychological safety. Therefore, the first step in launching any change management strategy is to create a compelling vision of where all of this change is taking the company. This needs to be a “get you out of bed in the morning” type of vision that resonates with everyone affected. The vision should speak to where will the change take the company, why, and who will be affected.

The next step is to use this compelling vision to create a robust campaign for change, with every change and update being clearly communicated and linked back to the vision. This allows people to put change into context and understand that the decisions being made are leading towards something greater (vision based change) – and not away from something undesirable (fear based change). Fear based change is shortsighted and will lead to short term results without sustainability. If lasting, transformation change is your goal, always focus on vision.

Practice radical transparency
I can almost hear you through this blog... “What if the change isn’t good?” I get it; the reality of doing business in today’s world means that not all change is positive. Sometimes, very hard decisions need to be made to protect the business and employees will inevitably be negatively impacted. This is where I see the bulk of change management strategies fail as executives plot behind closed doors to determine how they can execute the change with the least amount of visibility, or attention from the staff. The hard decisions are made and there is absolutely no communication or explanation given to the employees. This is particularly damaging when there are layoffs. It’s a commander-in-chief leadership style with a sprinkle of silent prayer that no one notices. The truth is, everyone notices and the negative impact starts to grow like a cultural cancer. Distrust in the organization starts to breed and where the human brain doesn’t have answers or context, it will naturally create them – and trust me, it will be an Oscar-worthy script, premiering at every water cooler and cafeteria in the company.

In my experience, the only time change management strategies succeed when there are unavoidable negative outcomes for employees, is when there is total radical transparency. We need to give our employees enough credit to know that, if given the facts and conditions in which these difficult decisions have been made, they will understand and support the organization in moving forward. That being said, I have encountered situations where for legal reasons, the details of the change could not be shared with employees. In this case, I recommend that you still give people an opportunity to express how they feel about the change, and with the understanding that no further information can be shared, ask what it is they need in order to move on? What I’ve learned from facilitating a number of these group sessions is that people don’t actually need to know why some difficult decisions were made, they just need an opportunity to say whatever it is they need to say, and a safe place to vent any feelings they might need to express, in order to feel that they have been heard. 

Start a movement
Change is a movement - and a movement can only happen if there are followers. If you want to change the organization’s culture, you need to actively create it. You can do this by redesigning business practices and social events that model the new, desired culture. Make sure your compensation and rewards programs incentivize the desired outcomes. And make sure that all top executives are on-side! A common change strategy pitfall is that the desired changes and behaviour are not fully bought into or modeled from the very top level of the organization. If it’s not coming from above, it will most certainly not be adopted below. Therefore, extra time and attention should be spent coaching the executive team to ensure buy-in and to ensure they know what’s expected of them too. Remember, executives are just more skilled and experienced employees – they’re human and subject to all the same foibles and insecurities as any other member of your staff.

You can also start a movement by doing any of the following:

  • Create “change ambassadors” at every level of the organization who are trained to understand the details/logistics of the change and who know how to answer questions and objections by other employees. You should select people who are your informal leaders and cultural ambassadors. I have also chosen the people who are of high influence in the organization but tend to be “change resisters”. Giving these individuals this heightened recognition and special role in the change management process helps to win them over.
  • Outline the WIIFM2 throughout every step and integrate it into every communication.
  • It’s very important to communicate early wins to the entire organization and publically recognize those people who are early adopters.

Let’s talk feelings

The cherry on this change management sundae is the ability to talk openly and honestly about feelings. Whether you like it or not, we are emotional beings and while many of us wish we could check our emotions at our workplace door, it simply isn’t possible. At the end of the day, where the heart goes, the head will follow. As leaders, we can support change by creating organizations that are emotionally intelligent and where employees feel safe to express how they are feeling – the good and the bad.

It’s as simple as asking, ‘what does that make you feel’; it’s as hard as actually listening to the answer. 

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