The frenetic and accelerating pace of change in our industry is not new: It has been affecting us and the companies for which we work for decades.
Those now approaching retirement can share stories of how dramatically different things were when they entered the workforce 35–40 years ago. They can bear witness to the many inflection points of change—mainframe computers, personal computers, the internet, cell phones, and connected and wearable devices—and the changes they subsequently imposed on our industry.
A famous quote about the work of Charles Darwin—“It is not the strongest of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”1—emphasizes that change is not only good for humanity, but it also is required for survival.
Today, we could say change is inevitable—the new normal. Studies have been done, theories tested, methodologies developed, books written and trainings conducted, all in the pursuit of improving how we initiate as well as respond to change. Yet, somehow, we still struggle with it. These struggles are seen at companies that can’t adjust their offerings or approaches in order to stay relevant and competitive; in projects that flounder and fail because there wasn’t enough support for the initiative; and in precious time spent trying to encourage employees and clients to accept a proposed change.
Why is Change So Difficult?
In 2012, sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School and chair and director of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, published an article in Harvard Business Review titled “Ten Reasons People Resist Change.2 The reasons (with my paraphrased explanations) are:
- Loss of control. Change in which those impacted have no say can breed unease and feelings of insecurity.
- Excess uncertainty. Companies often roll out change before having all of the answers to how the change will be managed or how it will impact individuals. This can drive employees to cling to what is known and perceived as safe.
- Surprise, surprise! If all of the work on a change initiative is done behind closed doors and then sprung on employees, there is little space left for considering and preparing for change.
- Everything seems different. Vast change can be overwhelming, requiring the abandonment of long-held habits and practices.
- Loss of face. Feelings of responsibility for and loyalty to the standing practices being changed can elicit a defensive response.
- Concerns about competence. Fear of failure or of appearing incompetent in new processes can drive fear of and resistance to change.
- More work. Projects involving change require increases to existing workloads, often for those who are already overworked.
- Ripple effects. Unanticipated downstream impacts can make a project seem poorly planned or considered, and can fuel feelings of “I knew this wouldn’t work” that may develop in the course of experiencing change.
- Past resentments. Many older or long-term employees at insurance companies harbor elephant-like memories of past failed projects, especially at those companies with cultures where failures are punished instead of treated as learning opportunities. These memories and the pain associated with the failures help validate resistance to change.
- Sometimes the threat is real. Sometimes change brings layoffs and/or significant and undesired changes in responsibility. People rightfully fear these threats.
One challenge that becomes apparent when reviewing such a list is previous experience with change rarely increases our comfort with it. Instead, past experience often provides additional reasons to fear and resist change. Instead of building change-ready muscle, many people build change-resistant muscle, sparking the rise of a variety of passive-aggressive and direct resistance behaviors, such as “if I ignore it, it will go away,” and “if I make it too hard, they will give up.”
Another observation is of the truly individual nature of the change experience. Every person will react to change differently based on several factors, including the need for security and safety, the perception of impact to their work and/or their ego, and previous experience(s) of change.
Most professionals have at least one story of an epic change effort failure—time and money spent, and perhaps some fanfare, only to result in either no change whatsoever or a very short-lived change that faded right back to the previous approaches.
Why Do So Many Change Efforts Fail?
When it comes to change, failure has to be considered. There are myriad reasons change can fail—probably as many as there are efforts. A Google search will reveal many articles on why projects fail. However, further review can often uncover the motivation behind cited reasons. For example, project management software providers generally will name the lack of a tool (such as their product) to manage the project as a reason for failure, and project management consultants will espouse the dangers of inexperienced project managers. These certainly could be contributing factors to a project’s failure.
Other commonly seen reasons for failure include a lack of quality change management practices, under-resourcing, lack of executive support or sponsorship, unclear goals and objectives, and unrealistic deadlines.
In a more scientific analysis of change resistance, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, in their 2006 article “The Neuroscience of Leadership,”3 cited several key findings that provide insight into why change can be so difficult. The first, they said, “has to do with the nature of human memory and its relationship to conscious attention.”4 Essentially, they wrote, working memory is frequently engaged when people encounter something new, and it requires higher amounts of energy. More routine and familiar activities, on the other hand, engage a part of the brain where long-standing habits are formed and held. Habits, they said, require far less energy than new thoughts and ideas.
In addition, they said the cognitive dynamics required to perform an unfamiliar activity, such as driving on the opposite side of the road from one’s habitual side, also come into play when people face strategic or organizational change. They said this often leads to feelings many find uncomfortable, so people do what they can to avoid change.
Another reason change makes people feel uncomfortable is related to brain function. The human brain is able to detect perceived differences between expectation and actuality. For example, Rock and Schwartz said, when a child (or an adult) is promised a sweet but receives something salty or bitter, the brain emits strong error signals, which use a lot of energy and manifest in imaging technology as dramatic bursts of light.
These error signals are generated by the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the prefrontal region closely connected to the brain’s limbic system, which includes the amygdala. When the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex are activated, they elicit a fear reaction and draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal region, which promotes and supports higher intellectual functions. Rock and Schwartz went on to say that error signals “can thus push people to become emotional and to act more impulsively.”5 To wit: Trying to change a routine behavior “sends out strong messages in the brain that something is not right. These messages grab the individual’s attention, and they can readily overpower rational thought.”6
It takes a strong will to push past such mental messaging. And the same is true for organizational change. Attempts toward change, even with the best intentions, will elicit discomfort, and, ultimately, people’s capacity for higher thought decreases.
If we go back to the science of how the brain reacts to change, Rock and Schwartz also discussed how neuroscience and physics provide some insights. Without delving too deeply into the science, what they found is the brain can be eased into change through mindful, focused attention. Essentially, that which gets and maintains attention can influence changes in the brain. Mindful attention, repeated over time, provides a way to remap how individuals experience change. Rock and Schwartz believe such remapping can be facilitated “if we focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights.”7
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” A 2016 study regarding the benefits of mindfulness in managing and leading change found that, in addition to basic fundamental change management practices of “clarifying the goals and direction for the change project, securing guidance and support from executives and other professionals, and seeking to learn as much as possible about situations in order to drive the right actions,”8 teaching employees personal mindfulness practices may be “the easiest for change leaders to implement and perhaps the most effective for developing resilience and a sense of calm during change.”9
Another way to encourage employees to remain mindful during the change process is to provide both the tools and information needed to move through the cycles of change. One company, Prosci,10 developed a model for change known as ADKAR, which is based on the idea that change happens in phases and at the individual level.
ADKAR is an acronym for the stages individuals must move through in order to enable effective change:
- A—Awareness of the need for change
- D—Desire to support the change
- K—Knowledge of how to change
- A—Ability to demonstrate skills and behaviors
- R—Reinforcement to make the change stick
Individuals will move through these phases at different speeds. This is not to suggest that companies seeking to make changes need to tailor a change management plan for each individual. Instead, they should build a plan that accounts for the needs of each phase.
Many times, organizations will jump straight to training when rolling out a change, believing if employees are given the steps and tools they need, the change project will succeed. Doing this, however, skips over the first three stages: We are not building awareness of or the desire for the change, nor have we helped the brain understand why and how the desired change might benefit them, and what things might look like after the change.
Think of those early stages as ways to help employees affected by change begin to build mindfulness. Introducing the drivers and need for change, and providing the “what’s in it for me” of change, assists in that critical remapping of the brain and keeps panic and fear from overtaking logical thinking.
Yes, change is hard, and given today’s accelerating pace of change, its associated pain will continue. However, steps can be taken to help ease that pain and build a change-ready brain. We need to have the courage to take the time to help people through the process.