As a leader, you know the only way to keep ahead - or abreast - of competitors on a local or international level is to ensure continuous improvement. Change has always been a part of life, but in this disruptive age the level and pace is speeding up. Standing still is not an option – if you stop moving forward, you’ll inevitably go backwards.
So, armed with research, knowledge, and a clear understanding of your business, you set out to introduce new ways of thinking – perhaps different company structures, new processes, or even a modification of your service or products. You know the benefits, you’ve done your homework, and you’re convinced that the change will be great for the company. All you have to do is to get the change implemented, and you’ll start to see the rewards.
Simple – right?
Not for any manager who’s ever tried to implement successful change management! Even the most resourceful leaders are often frustrated by the ‘push-back’ that can accompany an attempt at change. This could be as minor as foot-dragging or could even become a concerted programme of sabotage, along with threats of resignations, sometimes from key people.
It can be baffling – why do so many people put up such a spirited resistance against changing the status quo?
What makes people tend to say ‘no’ to change?
Understanding the psychology of how change affects people is the crux of learning how to implement successful change management. Human beings have survived throughout the centuries by gathering knowledge; if their information was successful, they stayed alive. Of course, this often meant modifying their behaviours but, nonetheless, patterns were built up over time that created a feeling of safety and certainty.
Also, from the time we are very young, the world bombards us with information – far more than we can absorb. As a result, we start to compartmentalise experiences to try to make sense of everything going on around us. We test situations to see if they work for us, and start to recognize similar circumstances that can be put in the same box. This leads to patterns of thought that firm up into habits; these habits become systems of belief. Our beliefs are crystallised over time as we find more and more evidence to support our perceptions. We naturally develop into creatures of habit, and thus don’t jump at the chance of embracing something unfamiliar.
On a deeply unconscious level, people start to believe that if something has been done a certain way for a period of time, it must be the best way of doing it. This is why so much change management gets the knee-jerk reaction of: “That’s not the way we do things around here”.
The human paradox
Ironically, though, human behaviour is paradoxical, so most people will actually tell you that they really do want change. They’re dissatisfied with their lives or jobs or the way the country’s run (and so on), and they want something different. The thing is that ‘wanting change’ is very different from actually changing oneself, which is why so many people keep the same hairstyle their whole lives, or follow fashion trends that date them by decades. Even some of the adventurous who love travel may find themselves complaining that things aren’t the way they are ‘back home’, and spend their holidays searching menus for familiar food.
Making sure that change is actually real
Another problem occurs when people are prepared to embrace change, having been reassured of the many accompanying benefits, but after much upheaval and discomfort find that things settle back to largely how they were before. Those who’ve been in an organization for some time can become disillusioned and cynical when yet another attempt is made at change management, only to find that the differences are largely cosmetic, and all the effort made brings them back to square one. It’s the ‘re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ syndrome.
And that’s if the change is even carried through to fruition. Many companies begin to make a structural or process change, find that it’s too much work, and abandon the project half-way. There’s little wonder, then, that the battle-weary troops are loathe to wave the flag of enthusiasm when the next round of change is proposed. In fact, the worst thing about ‘fake’ change is that it opens old wounds of previous promises, and past resentments are suddenly centre-stage again.
Why even bother with change then?
The one thing that’s certain is that there’s no way to resist change – we’re part of an ever-advancing civilization and those who can’t or won’t adapt will simply be left behind. Learning new skills is essential, as is an ability to change course ever-more rapidly, for decisions to be swift, and for strategies to be implemented quickly and effectively.
Some companies are truly great at change. Facebook, for example, saw that hand-held devices were the future and made a 180 degree shift in a matter of months. There are numerous other examples of companies that have responded timeously and well to changing circumstances. You could say that a company like Facebook has millennials on board – people at the cutting edge of technology who thrive on innovation, and that’s true. Your company may have a greater representation of generations, including those who started their working lives in a very different time of greater predictability and certainty.
There is good news though. Not only is change inevitable, but most people can become good at it, no matter what their age or circumstances. But this requires that leaders become smarter and better at getting people on board with new ideas. A good understanding of the human psyche and people’s natural resistance to change should make leaders better prepared to ensure that they win hearts and minds before implementing a new strategy. Many companies, though, put the cart before the horse – they introduce a change while retrospectively attempting to win approval from those affected.
There are many highly successful ways of implementing change – and once a team understands the reason for the change, sees the advantage, and believes that it’s real change that’s actually going to happen, moving it forward can gather momentum extremely fast. When you manage to convert an automatic ‘no’ into even a tentative ‘yes’, most of the work is done.
How do you do this? We’ll talk about this in a subsequent blog.