It Isn’t Easy To Make Change Stick
How many times have you seen a boss or manager try to put a new process into place, only to have no one use it after a few weeks?
Or, maybe you’re the one who’s tried to make the improvements when no one wanted to change and watched your efforts fizzle out.
I know I have. And it is frustrating.
I’ve been the one who has been given the responsibility to make a department operate more smoothly, and have created tools and plans to make things better. Things I thought were going to be great and make their lives easier - and then maybe one or two people actually did them, while the rest waited until I gave up trying to enforce it.
But, I’ve been on the other side too.
In many past jobs, I’ve had managers come along and propose changes to my work processes that were bad ideas (or at least they seemed bad to me).
Some changes almost seemed arbitrary, as though they were just trying to prove their worth to the higher-ups. Other ideas were clearly cooked up by executives in a boardroom somewhere with no practical knowledge of my job.
But, then your manager comes along and tells you the changes to make and you have to do them, despite your objections. You either adapt to the new method or wait until no one cares anymore and go back to the way you prefer doing the task.
There must be a better way to handle things, right?
Why Change Is So Hard
For the majority of people, change is hard. Why?
There are several reasons for this.
We resist having another person’s will imposed on us from the time we are toddlers. It’s called the “counterwill instinct”. An article by Deborah MacNamara explains that the term was first coined by the Austrian psychoanalyst and student of Freud, Otto Rank.
It’s part of how we develop our independence and individual perspectives but can be frustrating to parents and teachers of defiant children. MacNamara goes on to say that the way to handle this in children is through attachment. “Attachment is what opens a child’s ears to real and lasting influence – not coercion, bribes, threats, rewards, or punishment”.
Ok, so that’s one reason - we innately don’t like being told what to do, especially when there’s already an established way that we like to do a certain thing. What else?
We are also biologically resistant to change.
The neurobiology of our brains is such that we have primitive wiring that controls our automatic responses to situations, like habits and situations. These are actions that are automatic and easy. They require minimal effort or willpower, like brushing your teeth in the morning.
But, making conscious decisions uses the neocortex, which requires much more effort and willpower - especially if we’re not motivated to make the change in the first place. An example is trying to get yourself to start a new workout routine because you’re out of shape but don’t really like working out very much so it’s hard to actually get yourself to do it.
The solution here is that we need to get that thing we need to do but don’t particularly want to do, become a habit.
And that means building new neural pathways!
It is a common misconception that we can form new habits in an average of 21 days.
In a 2009 study by Phillipa Lally, published by the European Journal of Social Psychology, it was found that the average time it actually takes to form a new habit is 66 days, although it could range from 18 to 254 days.
What this tells us as leaders are that if you want to make changes, you need to be patient and consistent because it’s going to take time. And if you’re trying to institute new ideas or processes in your organization, know that some people will take longer to adapt than others.
So, what does the process of change look like?
Steps of Change
There are many ideas out there as to the steps that people go through in organizations during changes. What is generally agreed upon is that people go through a series of emotional states, during which it is easy for both them and management to give up and go back to what was done in the past.
The process looks something like this:
(Full disclosure, I pulled the ideas behind this from various sources)
As you can see, for the employees this process begins with a series of negative emotions, which hits a low point before it gets better. Also, you can see that (again) this process takes time.
Some people adapt to new ideas and situations quickly; heck, they may even enjoy change. Other people (most) will go through something like the above image describes.
The danger here is that for those people who don’t like change and resist it, reverting back to the old way is easy and can happen at many points during this process unless management stops that from happening.
How can management help?
Importance of Leadership in Change Management
Having your leadership lead the charge on change is vital. They must be present, be engaged, and help everyone adapt by:
Talking about the change frequently and in various forms (team/company meetings, emails, one-on-ones) in advance of it happening and throughout the transition.
Transparency. Give as much information as possible about what is happening and why, as well as how the transition is expected to go.
Paint a vision of the future. The leader has to be optimistic about this change and the benefit that it will bring to everyone. Talk about that, and describe what the better future looks like.
Be available. You will have employees that want to talk about their concerns, and it is important that you make time for that.
Listen. Really hear their concerns and worries; most people just want to be heard, even if it doesn’t change anything.
Empower. If you have an employee who has an idea for how to make the transition better, let them try it out. Empower your people to have some control during the change.
Empathize. Genuinely acknowledge their feelings, and talk it through with them (be a real person).
Stick to your guns. You must be the leader here - if you stop pushing forward, everyone else will lose momentum. This decision was made for a reason, and it will not take hold unless you get everyone through the transition all the way to the end.
You can also strategize the process of change so that your employees accomplish small wins along the way. These should be recognized publicly if at all possible to help everyone stay motivated.
This can particularly help to get people to the Engagement and Exploration phases more quickly because they will overcome the fear that the change will cause them to fail or be less effective.
Recall earlier when we talked about the solution to the counterwill instinct in children being through establishing attachments as parents or teachers? Well, hokey as this may sound, it works with adults too.
Think about the best leaders or mentors you’ve worked with - the ones you felt the strongest connections and feelings of loyalty to. The most trust in their decisions. How did they inspire those feelings in you?
For me, it was spending time getting to know me in one-on-ones, listening to my dreams and goals, being honest and transparent in our interactions, and proving over time that they were advocates for me and my team.
Then when changes inevitably came, I knew that they had fought for what was best for my team and we would get through it together.
So, focus on connecting with your employees. Make room for listening to their concerns and their ideas. Form solid professional relationships with them (i.e., attachments). Plus, the more allies you have, the more people will be helping their fellow employees adapt when you’re not around.
Understand that adapting to changes takes time because new neural pathways have to form before it becomes the norm. Until they do, expect resistance because people don’t like changing and we’re wired from birth to be defiant when it comes to people imposing their wills on us.
Expect emotional rough patches as people get frustrated with the changes before they get better. But, be consistent in leading them through it and don’t give up too soon, or the change won’t make it all the way to becoming the norm (depending on what it is, of course).
How this relates to Sustainability
Change management relates to sustainable business in several ways. First is that the changes you could be (and hopefully are) working on in your company are intended to improve your environmental, social, and economic impacts, which is what sustainable business is all about.
Maybe they’re changes in processes that reduce your resource use. Or, maybe they’re initiatives to connect your company with the community through volunteer events.
Perhaps you’re trying to teach your employees about the value of Diversity and Inclusion, which requires some shifts in mindset and challenging our biases.
None of these are easy, but they’re all good things to do and will be met with resistance by those who don’t want to do things or think about them in a new way.
Another aspect of sustainable business is caring about your stakeholders as individual humans. This means recognizing the ways that change will be difficult and stressful for them and working with them to minimize the difficulty while pursuing the organization’s goals.
Sustainability is also about long-term strategy. Leadership that can successfully navigate through the inevitable changes of the future are the ones that will succeed and remain competitive.
Companies that have good reputations for their leadership acumen will also be better able to attract talent to come work with them.
No one wants to work for someone who barks orders at them, doesn’t take time to explain or listen to their concerns, and expects them to handle the change on their own. So don’t be that guy.
Your employees will appreciate you for it, and you will be more effective as a leader.