A Publication of WTVP

Management must understand why changes fail in order to break down resistance to change.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak about leadership and change management to a graduate class at a local university. Most of the students were adult learners who have been working in various industries and are now focusing on their graduate studies. The discussion centered on change in the workplace and some of the inhibitors of the change process.

One would think that management has the change process “nailed” since it’s been going on since the dawn of man. However, that just simply isn’t the case. Even well-designed plans for organizational change fail and are costing organizations time, opportunities for innovation and money.

The sobering reality is that nearly 70 percent of all changes fail! The sad part, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, is that this failure rate has been consistent for decades, and indications are that it might be getting worse. There are obvious costs wasted on failed or ineffective change due to spent resources and lost opportunities; however, there are also hidden costs such as employee cynicism and fear, which tend to adversely affect future change initiatives as well.

Rick Maurer, in his book Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Why 70% of All Changes Still Fail—and What You Can Do About It, listed the four biggest mistakes that change leaders consistently make: assuming that understanding equals support and commitment; understanding the potential power of employee and management engagement; failure to appreciate the power of fear; and failure to acknowledge that even a slight lack of trust and confidence in leaders can kill a good idea.

In considering these four basic mistakes, the following top 10, in reverse order, is offered as to why Maurer’s list may be true.

10. Leaders don’t know how to lead change. Unless leaders have been living in a windowless cellar for all their lives, they have all been exposed to change management. Undoubtedly they’ve read more than a few books, attended training, listened to motivational speakers, and have been subjected to consultants who tout their brand of change management. As a result, most leaders know what to do—but they generally don’t put that knowledge into practice.

9. Leaders assume that change is easy. Generally, leaders expect people to add a new project to their already full plates of activities. When these leaders are asked, “What’s the top priority now?” they reply, “Everything.” I know of companies that ask their people to spend as much as 20 percent of their time on project work and permits them to be on five teams (even those without a lot of math skills can see that this is 100 percent of available work time), but still expect them to complete their normal work tasks! Is this a recipe for success or failure?

8. Leaders believe a good idea will succeed every time. Many change leaders also believe employees and other stakeholders will be so struck by their brilliance that they will support whatever idea, no matter how goofy, he/she came up with. Project sponsors/leaders seldom have a firm grip on the scope or difficulty of a project; therefore, projects are often woefully under-resourced and burdened with unrealistic deadlines.

7. Leaders can force people to change. A senior manager who tried that approach told me, “All I got was malicious compliance.” People can be devilishly creative in the ways they can slow down or foil your best-laid plans. Leaders should not forget that change scares most people. Fear can be a big distraction that undermines a team’s ability to focus and stay productive. People need to understand the motivation for change and leaders have to “win them over.”

6. Leaders prioritize “how” over “why.” Even well-meaning leaders often rush to action. They do this because they are worried that things must change quickly or they are excited by the possibility of seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and not because they are insensitive souls. The people who need to be engaged to make change a reality should know why it’s important to do anything differently. Without knowing why it’s important, people simply won’t be interested in making the change
process work.

5. Leaders ignore the complexity. Once an idea takes hold in anyone’s brain, it’s hard to see the overall context. Leaders miss signals telling them the time isn’t right, that people are worn out, conditions have changed, or the corporate culture won’t support the change management process at this time.

4. Leaders don’t understand resistance. Either they ignore it, or they present mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. Those are dangerous tactics. People resist for a lot of good reasons. The only people who like change are babies with wet diapers. When a leader understands that, he/she also understands what it takes for people to support change.

3. Leaders don’t have the game. Many leaders lack the skills to lead and manage change effectively. They know what to do—they just can’t do it! They’ve never practiced. It’s like trying to jump from a “pick-up” basketball game to an NBA team, but missing all the steps in between. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team, but after spending countless hours perfecting his game, he went on to a stellar NBA career.

2. Leaders and organizations are immune to change. We can say all the right words—and believe what we say—but something stops us. Think about all the people who try to lose weight or get back in shape and how few actually succeed. They know what to do and how to do it, but they don’t do it. The same is true for organizations and leaders. No amount of training, motivation or practice will help unless leaders examine underlying misrepresentations and false commitments that stop any change they lead.

1. Leaders believe that none of the other items on this list really matter. So leaders do what they’ve always done and tend to get the same results. Someone once said that this was the definition of insanity!

In Beyond the Wall of Resistance, Maurer advises leaders to look at change in a new and different way than in the past, but we’ll discuss that in another article. Change is often desirable, frequently necessary and seldom embraced, but always inevitable. It is up to management to understand how to break down resistance and become true agents of change. iBi