Why Most Workplace Change Initiatives Fail and What to Do About It

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The commonly cited statistics in the business press on the failure rates of organizational change initiatives range from 50 to 70 percent. Even if we are operating at the low end of the range, the numbers are simultaneously impressive and depressing. This article explores the primary reasons so many change initiatives misfire and offers managers and executives ideas on dramatically improving the odds of success.

Change is Fear

The research in neuroscience and psychology suggests that we respond to the idea of change at work—particularly unanticipated change—with the same part of our brain that controls the fear responses. In the face of unanticipated change, we shift from discovery mode to defend mode, and our hardwired reactions are fight, flight or freeze. When this portion of the brain takes over, our much younger and less developed deliberate thinking center is shoved out of the way in favor of those stronger responses. 

Imagine this fight, flight or freeze reaction amplified across an entire employee population. Many who have experienced these pronouncements from senior managers describe their emotional reactions as follows:

  • What does this mean for me?
  • Is my job going to be eliminated? 
  • Why are we doing this?
  • What’s wrong with the current strategy or structure?
  • How do I avoid being singled out for these changes?

    When those and similar emotions reflect the mood of the employee base, creativity and initiative shut down, and people tend to freeze, waiting for more information on this imminent danger

    A firm I encountered in my consulting work was in the habit of reorganizing and shifting strategy every fiscal year, and after a few cycles, the rumor mill kicked in somewhere around mid-year and continued through the restructuring.

    Add this extreme distraction with the chaos and confusion that often follows a restructuring as individuals strive to understand the new structure and relationships, and it is easy to see how this struggling firm squandered a good part of their fiscal year in a frozen state. 

    Major Mistakes Managers Make in Introducing Change

    By the time top managers are prepared to roll out a new strategy, program or organizational change, they have invested ample time researching, developing, debating and refining the change idea. They’ve moved from a blank canvas to seeing a complete picture and they understand the subtleties and implications of what the picture represents. In contrast, employees learning of the idea for the first time see a meaningless inkblot and not the beautiful picture so carefully crafted and refined by the firm’s top managers over time. 

    Internalizing the idea of change, much less the rationale and approach, takes time. Humans learn best and adapt to change when we generate insights on our own. We naturally resist immediately accepting or adopting the insights of others. When managers fail to involve employees in the process of defining the changes, they rob them of the ability to cultivate these important individual insights.

     

    Compounding the error of not involving employees in defining the changes, the sudden announcement of a new initiative or a new strategy at a town hall meeting or via a webinar generates the emotional responses described above. The notion of, “What does this mean for me?” is probably the dominant thought running through everyone’s minds when learning of a significant new organizational change. Cue the fear responses!

    Another major mistake top managers make in promoting change, is failing to engage and empower their employees in bringing the initiative to life. Instead of asking for help, they dictate the “How” and “When” and “Who.” This potentially fatal (to the program) mistake strips individuals of any sense of autonomy. It keeps them in defend mode wondering what’s next and possibly motivating the fight response either directly or via passive-aggressive behaviors.

     

    10 Actions to Help Managers Succeed With Change 

    Change is always difficult—for the very human reasons described above—and for the reality that our organizations are comprised of many moving parts and processes that are optimized or at least routinized over time. Armed with the insights on the major mistakes, it is incumbent upon managers to do the following to strengthen the odds of success with change. 

    1. Socialize the idea with the broader employee population that change is being considered as early as possible before plans have been created. Share the reality that the firm is evaluating the current strategy or striving to identify ways to improve collaboration or productivity. 
    2. Invite employees to share ideas. Frame the challenge in front of the management team for public consumption and ask for input. Run executive roundtables or lunch events and share the challenges and look for ideas. 
    3. Leverage internal chat and social media tools to solicit input. The better you frame the issue, the more ideas you will receive to help the process. 
    4. Extend the working team below the executive and senior manager levels. Involve subject matter experts and key individual contributors as well as key internal influencers. Ask everyone involved to share the process with their teams and to continue soliciting ideas. 
    5. Showcase strategic objectives or drivers for the impending program long ahead of announcing the details of the changes. 
    6. Build the skeleton for the changes, but let the organization add the details. Senior managers own framing the new strategy or program. However, the focus must be on gaining employee help to translate the big themes into smaller details. 
    7. Create a robust feedback loop that enables lessons learned and obstacles encountered to be shared and resolved quickly. 
    8. Strive to identify individuals who are thriving in leading the work of change and provide them with additional opportunities. A period filled with change is a rich developmental period—take advantage of it. 
    9. Make a big deal out of the formal launch. Instead of the weak approach of just announcing the new program at a company event, you have the benefit of celebrating the changes with people actively involved in bringing them to life. Have a great party and celebrate the organization's accomplishments!
    10. If your firm uses a scorecard, add measures to reflect the results of the new initiatives. Employees who played a role in bringing an initiative to life appreciate feedback on how it is working and driving results. 

    The Bottom Line

    There are few activities more difficult in business than leading organizational change, yet our world of ambiguity and uncertainty demands that firms adapt and adjust quickly. Instead of applying yesterday's brute force techniques to driving change, smart leaders and managers empower their employees as equal partners in these important initiatives.