Psychology of Change Management: Resistance, Failure, Behavior, Irrational Side… Improving Odds for Success…

Change management is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. ~ John F. Kennedy

Most business change management programs fail, but the odds of success can be greatly improved by taking into account– counter intuitive insights about how employees interpret their environment and choose to act, say ‘Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller’. In the book ‘Leading Change’ (classic work in change management) by John Kotter reveals that only 30% of change management programs succeed.

Since the book’s release, literally thousands of books and journal articles have been published on the topic, and courses dedicated to managing change are now part of many major MBA programs. Yet in 2008, a McKinsey survey of 3,199 executives around the world found, as Kotter did, that only one change transformation in three succeeds. Other studies over the past ten years reveal remarkably similar results.

In the article ‘The Psychology of Change Management’ by ‘Emily Lawson and Colin Price’ they provide a holistic perspective, which suggests that four basic conditions are necessary before employees will change their behavior: a) compelling story, b) role modeling, c) reinforcing mechanisms, d) capability building.  According to ‘Aiken and Keller’; this prescription is well grounded in psychology and is entirely rational. One of its merits is its intuitive appeal; many managers feel that, once revealed, it’s simply good ‘common sense’. And this, ‘Aiken and Keller’ say is precisely where things go wrong:

The prescription is right, but rational managers who attempt to put these four conditions in place by applying ‘common sense’, typically; waste time and energy, create messages that miss the mark, and experience frustrating and unintended consequences from their efforts to influence change management. Why? Because when managers implement the prescription, they disregard certain– sometimes irrational– but predictable elements of human nature…

In the article Why Change Management Fails in Organizations by Ray Williams writes: Leaders must understand and apply the knowledge of behavioral psychology to manage organizational change successfully. In the past, efforts at organizational change have systematically failed because they have neglected the reality that change doesn’t happen without individual people changing their– thinking, beliefs, and behavior.

In the article by ‘Emily Lawson and Colin Price’ they argue that change management success, in large organizations, depend on groups and individuals changing the way they function… In effect, management must alter the mind-sets of their employees– no easy task.  Aubrey C. Daniels, world authority on management and human performance, says another reason why organizations are fundamentally flawed from a behavioral perspective is that they were designed by people– those with financial expertise– who have only one purpose in mind, to make money.

He says– ‘when change management programs are designed without an understanding of human behavior; results can be destructive.’ For example, there is a mountain of research to show that employees are not primarily motivated by financial rewards, over long-term, yet we continue to use it as a management motivational strategy.

An article by ‘Rock and Schwartz’ states: “The traditional command-and-control style of change management doesn’t lead to permanent changes in behavior. The more you try to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong, the more they push back. The way to get past objections is to help people come to their own resolution.”

Dr. Robert Cooper writing in ‘Strategy and Leadership Journal’, points out that we actually have three brains–the ‘one in our head’, the ‘one in our gut’ and the ‘one in our heart’. He claims that the highest reasoning involves three brains working together… All this information is great, but what does it all mean? It means that: Conventional change management tactics in organizations are based more on animal training than on human psychology…

Leaders promise bonuses and promotions (the carrot) for those who go along with the changes, and punish those (the stick) who don’t with less important jobs or even job loss. This kind of managerial behavior flies in the face of evidence that shows that people’s primary motivation, in workplace, is neither; money or advancement, but rather personal interest in their jobs, good work environment, and a fulfilling relationships with their boss and colleagues…

In the article The Irrational Side of Change Management by Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller write: In our research working with companies attempting change management, we identified nine insights into how human nature gets in the way of successfully applying the four conditions (i.e., Lawson and Price) required for behavioral change.

Conventional change management thinking extols the virtues of; creating a compelling change story, communicating it to employees, and following it up with ongoing communications and involvement. This is good advice, but in practice there are three pitfalls to achieving the desired impact:

  1. What motivates you doesn’t motivate most of your employees.
  2. You’re better off letting them write their own story.
  3. It takes a story with both + and – to create real energy.

The fact is human beings consistently think they are better than they are– a phenomenon referred to in psychology as a self-serving bias:

  1. Leaders believe mistakenly that they already ‘are the change’.
  2. Influence leaders– aren’t a panacea for making change happen.

Conventional change management practice emphasizes the importance of reinforcing and embedding desired changes into; structures, processes, systems, target setting, incentives. We agree. To be effective, however, the mechanisms must take into account that people don’t always behave rationally:

  1. Money is the most expensive way to motivate people.
  2. The process and the outcome have got to be fair.

Change management literature emphasizes the importance of building the skills and talent needed for desired change. Though hard to argue with, in practice there are two insights that demand attention in order to succeed:

  1. Employees are what they– think, feel, and believe in.
  2. Good intentions aren’t enough.

In the article Improving Your Odds of Success in Driving Change by Art Petty writes: In their article, the authors ‘Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller’ offer some interesting insights and ideas that they describe as counter-intuitive but potentially helpful for improving the odds of success for change management initiatives.  On a depressing but not surprising note, in their article, ‘Aiken and Keller’ cite a 2008 study of over 3,000 executives that found that one-in-three change management initiatives fail. 

These low success rates have been well documented by John Kotter, as well as other researchers in the field of change management. The ‘Aiken and Keller’ article cites the 4 basic conditions (i.e., Lawson and Price) necessary for change according to theories in psychology of change management, and their thoughts on how these 4 conditions are applied, namely:

The prescription is right, but rational managers who attempt to put the four conditions in place by applying ‘common sense’, typically; waste time and energy, create messages that miss the mark, and experience frustrating and unintended consequences from their efforts to influence change.” The authors go on to share nine insights into their application of the 4 conditions that explain why change initiatives might fail and how to improve the odds. My interest is with two of their insights related to the ‘compelling story’ condition for change; here are my comments:

  • First: What motivates you doesn’t motivate most of your employees’. While we tend to focus on telling stories about ‘what has changed’ and ‘why we have to change’, or ‘what we want to accomplish’, research shows that people respond best to stories that address five forms of impact: society, customer, company, environment, ‘me-personal’
  • Second: ‘You’re better off letting them write own story’. Executives and leaders go to great lengths to tell change management stories.  They call special meetings, conduct town halls, webinars, blog posts and often walk away feeling like they’ve      done the job.  They’ve spoken, the message is clear and everyone must agree or they’ll single them out as resistors.  The authors suggest that while stories about the need to changes (i.e., told in ways that address the five forms of impact) have to get out there: I suggest that we would be better off by listening more and telling less.

While there is much more in the ‘Aiken and Keller’ article, than I am highlighting here, just the lessons from the first two points alone are compelling… The bottom-line: Like so many things in leadership and management, there are no silver bullets for success. A lot of really smart people try to drive change in business, and fail. 

Those that succeed seem to know that change is intensely personal and that their role is to create an environment where the need for change can be processed and where individuals can take control of defining the terms of change.  While it seems that just when the leader thinks that he/she should be hands-on, is precisely the time when he/she should step back and let go.

Even the most credible of leaders have to step up their game when it comes to talking about and promoting change on their teams and in their organizations.  According to Art Petty; you can trust that a good number of people in the organization have developed a case of cynicism on talk of change emanating from the higher-ups. They’ve consumed too many ‘flavor of the month’ programs and developed heartburn when the programs died in mid-stream.

They’ve watched leaders come and go, and they no longer hear the siren call or pay much attention to the slogans and signs. Can you blame them? If they wait a few minutes, this too shall pass, and in spite of their positive view, people are conditioned to wait until the noise dies down and the focus turns back to getting the work done. For some leaders, the institutionalized and individual resistance to change is extremely frustrating and vexing.

One leader offered; “I’m told that I’m credible, people have responded well to my leadership, I don’t pump sunshine or doom and gloom, yet people are dragging their feet on this new program. I know that doing new things can be frightening, but why aren’t people more excited and supportive?”

Change is inevitable and intuitively, we all know and accept this reality. However, don’t discount the challenges that you will face in gaining support for your message on the need to change. You’ve had ample time to process on it, but when your team members hear it for the first time, it’s either noise or interesting, but not tangible. The only way through the resistance is straight ahead. Your honesty and authenticity are truly important. Your willingness to engage in dialogue and your humility in asking for input and help are priceless…

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed! ~ Peter Senge