Why Is Organizational Change so Hard?

January 11, 2018 by Susanne MadsenSusanne Madsen

When we talk about “organizational change,” the words “resistance” and “tension” often spring to mind.

Consider the difficulty, for instance, when two organizations merge, or the fear that employees feel when a part of their job is automated and some of their skills become redundant. The problem isn’t with the change itself, in spite of the difficulties that it may bring.

Organizational change is vital for any business that wants to survive and thrive in our increasingly competitive and fast-paced world. The problem is that many leaders struggle to fully motivate and engage their employees in the process. They often move too fast, are too outcome driven and not sufficiently consultative in their approach.

Resistance to change is a phenomenon we frequently talk about in project management circles; it’s something we often quote as a major reason why projects and change programs don’t deliver the results they set out to. At its core, resistance to change is a label we apply to people who seem unwilling to accept a change. But for the most part, it isn’t the change itself that people resist. People resist change because they believe they will lose something of value, or fear they will not be able to adapt to the new ways.

When organizational change goes wrong it’s often because it’s being treated purely as an implementation of a new process. The manager uses a logical approach to deal with the practical elements of the change, but ignores the emotional side of the equation. Consider the example of an office move, for instance. This might be a straightforward project for the people who have been tasked with making the office move happen, with a well-defined outcome. But to the employees who will be affected by the change, it’s so much more than just an office move. It’s a significant change to their daily routine, which is deeply emotional because it threatens their level of safety and security.

Initially, the announcement of something like an office move might be met with excitement and positivity—especially if the building is newer and brighter and better located. But what happens if some people have to commute longer distances to get there? What happens if some people have to give up their private offices for an open seating plan, and believe it will affect their ability to focus and get the job done?

This group of people will feel uncertain and fearful—which to most managers will be perceived as “resistance.” And this type of resistance cannot be overcome through force and logic. It can only be addressed when managers and leaders take an interest in people’s deeply rooted emotions and the needs that drive them.

One of the six human needs that we all share is certainty. This is a need for safety and security and for knowing how a change will affect us. We need clarity and assurances so that we can put our fears to rest and feel that we will be safe and OK in spite of the change. It is a rudimentary part of our survival instinct that’s at play here. When people feel threatened or unsafe they switch from using their rational brain to their emotional brain. We are simply not as logical and rational as we would like to think!

What this means is that leaders need to make people feel safe and secure by addressing their fears and concerns. Great leaders do that by involving people in the change process, consulting them, listening to their ideas and making them part of the journey.

No one likes to have a change imposed on them. It’s far better to draw people into the story by making them active participants. Managers who only see the transactional side of a change will not be able to bring their teams with them. The trick is to understand human psychology and address the real concern of: what’s in it for them.

Great change leaders make people see the positive aspect of a change and make the status quo seem unappealing. They are able to do so because they have the capacity to empathize and walk in their team members’ shoes.

You may think that the ability to empathize and fully understand what’s going on for someone else is easy, but the soft skills can be really hard to master, as most of us have been taught to focus on tangible and hard outcomes. In today’s fast-paced business environments, the need for change leaders who understand human psychology in addition to hard results and KPI’s is vital. This is especially true when the mission is to change a company’s culture. An office move can be hard enough, but there is nothing more challenging than changing peoples’ psychology.

Imagine, for instance, a...

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