Change Leadership Workplace

Leading people through change

Leading people through change.

Did you know that a staggering two-thirds of organisational change fails to reach its stated objectives? Find out why, and what leaders can do. (14 mins watch time or read the edited transcript below).

Hi everyone, I’m Ros Cardinal, Managing Director of Shaping Change and creator of the Women’s Leader Archetypes. The topic for today is leading people through change. A really interesting statistic for you is that a staggering two-thirds of organizational change fails to reach its stated objectives.

Why change fails

Change fails because people don’t embrace change. One of the things that happens in change project is there’s a time lag between when the change is implemented, and when the people buy in and actually get on board with the change. If there’s not a very strong driver for people to change, they forget it, they go back to they way they were doing things, they resist it, and it doesn’t happen.

I remember many years ago, I was in an organizational change, with the implementation of a new document management system. For me, it wasn’t intuitive. I had what I thought was a perfectly good system on the shared drive, where I had my files and my folders organized in a way that made sense to me. When the new document management system came along, it was a particular protocol for filing documents. To me, it didn’t make any sense. I tried using it, I was struggling to find my documents, I found it very, very difficult. So instead of saving my documents in the document management system, I kept on saving them on to the shared drive. A lot of people did this, I wasn’t the only one.

But after a while, it came to the attention of the people who managed all of the documents in the organization. They had all the shared drives disabled so you couldn’t share documents on them. So then people started putting documents on their C drives on their computers. After a while that became common knowledge and the C drives on computers were disabled so you couldn’t save to them. Then people  bought external hard drives, so they could continue to ignore the document management system.

Now, that’s an example of people resisting change. It’s one of those things where people didn’t buy in, they didn’t understand it, they didn’t understand the reason for it.

People resist loss

There’s a myth that people don’t like change. And that’s simply not true. People love change, as long as they initiate it. If we didn’t like change, we’d never get a haircut, we never buy a new car, we’d never change jobs, we’d never have children, never buy new clothes. People love change, as long as they’re in control. The key thing that people are resisting, is not the change itself, what they’re resisting is loss. People as a species are hardwired for loss aversion, we hate losing things. Losing something makes us twice as miserable as gaining that thing makes us happy.

What’s going on for people when we announce a change inside an organization? What people are tracking for is “what’s in it for me”. They’re looking at “is the change going to be good for me or bad for me”. If they detect that they’re going to gain something from the change, they’ll support it, if they detect loss, they’re going to resist the change. The interesting part is if they don’t know, if they don’t have enough information to make their minds up, they’ll resist change until they have that information. At the beginning of change, what often happens is we don’t have all the information. Because people are hardwired to resist change unless they know what’s in it for them, we set ourselves up at the beginning for people to resist the change.

There’s an interesting activity that I do when I run change programs. It’s a bit of fun, but there’s a lesson behind it. I get people to turn to the person next to them, just have a quick look at them, and then turn away from them and make three changes to their appearance. It might be things like roll your sleeves up, tuck your hair behind your ears, but make three changes. Then the people turn back to each other and they’ve got to pick the things that the other person changed.

Then I ask people, what does that tell you about change? Now they tell me all the usual things, that often we don’t notice, that the change can be quite subtle, and so on. But that’s not the actual lesson of the activity. I move on to something else for a bit, then I’ll backtrack to it. I’ll say “so who in the room has now gone back to the way they were before I asked you to change”? If we put aside the practicalities, like needing glasses on to see, people will tell me “I went back to the way I was when I walked in because that’s what I chose”. “I wanted my sleeves rolled down, so as soon as I didn’t have to roll them up, I rolled them back down”. That’s exactly what happens in organizational changes. Leaders don’t pay attention to the change for long enough for it to bed in.

What are people losing?

When a change happens in an organization, there are a number of things that people can lose. When we announce restructures, people lose job security, they can lose their sense of psychological comfort and security as well. Their sense of control over things, control over their own future is a big one that people will resist.

There’s often the loss of a sense of purpose and meaning, quite often if people’s jobs change, they lose that sense of connection to what they did. And the connection to feeling like they added value.

They lose their competence. Often if we ask people to do something new, there’s always a learning curve where people don’t feel competent as they work their way through learning how to do something new. Going back to my document management example, that was exactly how I felt whenever I couldn’t find a document that I needed, I felt incompetent, When I look back on it now, that was the big reason for resistance.

People can lose social connections. When you start to disrupt teams and move people around, we lose that sense of belonging and connection to people in our team, who we view as like family.

We often find that people feel like they’re losing territory. I had a really great example recently about an organization that moved offices. Just after the move, somebody found a manager walking around the floor and going into everybody else’s office and counting the number of ceiling tiles they had in their office. What he was doing was trying to figure out who had the biggest office. It sounds silly, but it’s a really good example of people being upset about territory.

Loss of power and influence is a really big one. You find in organizations that there’s an unwritten hierarchy. Who do you need to talk to to get things done? Who’s who in the zoo? Who do we listen to? Who are the influencers? As soon as you move people around in an organization, you disrupt all of that, and it becomes difficult for people to influence effectively.

There’s loss of colleagues and friends if you disrupt teams and move people around.

The loss of expert status can be an interesting one too. Years ago, there was an organization I was involved with that was changing its billing system. There was a guy who was an expert in the credit process. He was hierarchically at the same level as other people in his team, but he was the go-to guy for anything related to credit. He ended up leaving the organization because he couldn’t come to terms with the change. What was really going on, if we dug a little deeper, it wasn’t the system that was the problem. The problem was the loss of his expertise and his expert status. Obviously, he was very connected to being competent, being the go-to person, and having expert status. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, he could have been brought into the change team. Maybe he could have been brought in as a super user or trainer so that he developed expertise and was able to train other people. That would have given him that sense of expert status back again, which is what the loss was for him.

People can lose trust in the organization and trust in the organizational leaders. “You’ve made all these changes, how do we know you’re not going to make more”? One of the things in organizational change is people assume that their leaders are plotting terrible things. Often there’s no trust in the leaders to deliver the outcomes of the change in the organization. I’ve heard people say, many times, “this is just another fad”. “It’s something else management is doing, if we just sit it out it will all go away again”.

I did some work for a business where I was helping people understand the change process. I sat down with their change team, and I said, “tell me a bit about the organization, what’s happening, explain the change to me, and tell me about the resistance that you’re experiencing”. And they said to me, “oh, we’re not getting any resistance at all”.  I delivered the program, and I was talking to the participants about the change. What was really going on was that the organization had so much failed change in the past that they didn’t honestly believe it was going to happen. That’s why there was no resistance to change. They told me the history of the organization. There had been a lot of failed change. They’d seen change, come and fade away, many, many times.

What can you do?

There’s a whole range of reasons why people resist change. It’s not the change that’s the problem. It’s the loss that’s the problem.

An activity for you, as a key takeaway, is to consider a change that you’re going through in the workplace at the moment.

Think about your team, think about who’s losing something, and what are they going to be losing. Think about how you can maybe balance the scales to reduce the sense of loss? Or how do you reframe it so that it is an opportunity for people rather than a loss?

Also in change as leaders, one of the things to think about too, is what are you losing. It’s interesting, particularly middle management, they’re not the architects of change, but they’re the ones who are expected to lead people through it. For them, it can be a very difficult time because they’re losing things as well. They’ve got to maintain that sense of balancing their own needs against the needs of the people in their team and the needs of the organization. So it’s a pretty tough job.

Find out more about leading people through change – 4 ways to help people through change.

If you are being personally impacted by change you will find our programs useful.

Thank you for joining me, my name is Ros Cardinal. I’m the Managing Director of Shaping Change.



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