Today’s business environment changes so quickly that the only thing you can truly count on is more change. Change can be a good thing. It forces us to identify new and innovative approaches and continually improve how we serve our customers. It can also be a negative when the market shifts in a direction we hadn’t anticipated. But all of this change, good and bad, can leave us fatigued. Couple this with our natural resistance to change and even small changes seem impossible, much less leading organizational change. Getting an entire organization to buy into change can feel like an impossible task. Yet, successfully implementing change is critical to organizational survival. A 2008 McKinnsey global survey found that more than 60% of executive level change efforts fail. Why?
Imagine this: You are part of an elite group of leaders sequestered away to discuss the direction of the organization, and the changes necessary to make that vision reality. You come back from your retreat and then spend months discussing and fine-tuning the vision and the plan. You and your team then unveil your grand vision to a synchronized organizational shrug. What went wrong?
Warren Bennis wrote that no change can occur without willing and committed followers. Yet employees have been largely an afterthought in the change process. As a result, employees often meet proposed changes with responses that range from skepticism to outright hostility. When they haven’t been consulted employees feel like victims of change rather than participants in it.
We all know that customers will only buy from us when they’ve seen the value in our product or service. We sometimes forget that our employees function in much the same way. If you want them to buy into a change, you have to listen to their ideas and concerns, build confidence, and follow-up so they know they have been heard.
Failure to anticipate change fatigue and resistance
Change fatigue and resistance to change are different. Change fatigue is that feeling of “I just can’t” that overwhelms you when a new initiative is announced. According to the diffusion of innovation theory, only 13.5% of your employees will be early adopters so that leaves 86.5% of your workforce in a wait and see mode. Resistance to change is the “not on my watch” reaction that precedes subtle or overt attempts to undermine change efforts. Most people will resist what they don’t understand, especially if they view the change as threatening. In many cases, your employees will see the need for change and agree with the proposed change, but they don’t have the energy or inclination to take on another change. Especially one that comes out of the blue.
Expecting Blind Obedience
Changes handed down from on high can feel like a threat. Employees who are blindsided by new demands are likely to push back. The old hierarchical model of leadership, with a boss at the top pushing initiatives and staff, blindly following orders is dead. Today’s workforce is going to require the “why” behind the change. More innovative organizations understand this and are soliciting ideas and working to secure buy-in from all levels of the organization.
Frontline vote of No Confidence
Keep the lines of communication open. Employees are on the front lines of your business. They see opportunities to better serve customers, cut costs, and market products and services.
Work to secure employee input at each stage of the change planning processes. There are times when a change looks good on paper, but your front-line workers can tell you why it won’t work in practice. Employees are more likely to embrace change if they feel like it addresses the real issues they face every day.
Underestimating the Learning Curve
By the time leaders roll out a change, you have been working with and thinking about it for months. Employees who have not been involved in the change process are asked to make a quick decision on something that is new to them. They need time to process how the change affects them.
Don’t just send out an email or schedule a meeting about the change, build transition time into your implementation schedule so everyone has time to adjust. Follow-up with employees to find out if the change strategy is working and make adjustments as necessary.
Change, especially change that feels sudden, is generally resisted. Making employees aware of upcoming changes as early as possible, and letting them influence the decision process will make changes far more palatable.
Your employees are your greatest resource and primary strategic advantage. Let them help you write the next chapter of your organization’s success story. Afterall, your organization can’t succeed without them.
I would love to hear your thoughts on change and leading through change. What did you find that made change more palatable for your organization?