You’ve probably seen this: 70% of change initiatives fail. And maybe your mother offered you this advice: “You can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.”
Change is hard. Change is inevitable. When it comes to change, there’s no shortage of platitudes.
But these ideas about change aren’t complete. There’s much more to the story. For instance, when psychologists think about humans as a species, they see change as natural.
In fact, it’s our human superpower.
We don’t even call it change, we call it learning
Humans have always lived in dynamic environments. The idea that we gravitate toward the status quo is a misunderstanding. We’ve never lived in static environments long enough to have the forces of evolution sculpt our mental models to this state.
The only kind of mind that makes humans evolutionarily fit is one that is flexible and responsive, able to make trade-offs and compromises to survive and thrive in any environment. In other words, a mind that is able to adapt.
And, fundamentally, we are social animals. We think and work in groups. We have cognitive biases that are useful for getting everyone to respond to the same stimuli. (Even if, in our complex societies today, these biases make objective truth harder to come by.) When the changes we make actually work better than an old way, we don’t even call it change. We call it learning.
Organizational behavior is just individual human behavior at scale. The trick, however, is getting people to change at the same time, in the same way. Here are some ways to understand change, and do exactly that: get everyone to do it together.
Change is social
In starting an organizational change, there are three types of people you’ll encounter.
- Change champions. Some people welcome change and will go to the mat for your idea. They are highly engaged, and a precious resource. Give them a starring role in your change campaign, and make sure their enthusiasm is on display. Send them out to convert other folks.
- Cynics. Others short-circuit change. If you’ve heard, “We tried that, it won’t work, the leaders won’t go for it, this organization never changes,” you’ve encountered a cynic. Changemakers often spend a lot of time trying to convince the cynics in organizations, and that’s the wrong approach. Crusty and annoying as they may be, inside every cynic lives a disappointed idealist. They are highly engaged, care a lot, and simply don’t agree with what the organization is doing. Their way of dealing with their disappointment is to treat failure as a foregone conclusion.
- How to treat a cynic? You can’t convince them, but you can convert them. Ask, “In the incredibly unlikely event that we are able to make something good happen with this initiative, what would you want it to be?” With gentle persistence, you’ll get a clue about what’s important to them. This is a win to build into your agenda. Follow through with it and get it done early. Suddenly your cynic becomes a highly powerful champion.
- Fence-sitters: Lots of people wait to see which way the wind blows. They aren’t highly engaged and, to be honest, this is most of the population. Don’t bother expending energy to convince them or engage them. Let your champions take care of it. If the fence-sitters look around and see change happening, they’ll get on board.
Change is emotional
Of course managers want to generate excitement for a change, a new beginning. To others, though, this excitement can fall on deaf ears. Would you comfort a friend whose grandparent just died by saying, “So, how are you going to spend your inheritance?” That’s what it’s like when a new idea is railroaded in, without consideration of how other people need to change.
All change involves loss. There are three phases: 1) The ending of the old way, 2) an adjustment period where you assess what will remain the same and what will change, and 3) embracing the new way.
When creating change, examine each of these six types of loss. Figure out which is the most relevant for your team, and do what you can to help them adjust.
- Loss of control. No one likes being told what to do. To overcome this, engage people in the process early, and give them the ability to make choices.
- Loss of pride. When you’re excited about a new way of doing things, it’s easy to inadvertently throw the old way under the bus. But people worked hard to create the old way. Find a way to honor the work that went before, giving credit and gratitude wherever needed. One team we worked with was adopting a new chat system, which meant some holdout leaders had to give up their beloved AIM messaging once and for all. The firm put a large poster of the AOL running man in the lobby, and asked everyone to write their AIM names on there as a way of saying goodbye. People had a wonderful time with it, and (unlike previous attempts to switch) the process was nearly painless.
- Loss of narrative. People need a coherent story. We suggest leaders use the company story to help frame change. Something like, “In the early days, we only had a few dozen people in the office, and it was fine to have a lot of local solutions. That got us to where we are now. But now that our department is half remote workers in multiple time zones and people need answers 24/7, we need a new way. This will help us achieve what we need.”
- Loss of time. Learning and change take time and effort, and people are busy. What’s the solution? Take something off your plate – or that of your employees – to make room for the change.
- Loss of competence. As we master a technique – a process, a tool – we go from seeing it as a collection of individual elements to seeing it as patterns. The more expert someone is, the more they rely on pattern recognition. If you flash a chess board at expert players, they can reconstruct where the pieces were, as long as they were in an order that would actually happen during a chess game. Novice chess players can’t do that. But move some pieces to spots that are outside the rules that the experts have memorized, and the expert’s ability is suddenly no better than the novice. Therefore, when instituting change, you want to give support for new skills and help the experts incorporate new practices into their proven patterns.
- Loss of familiarity. Change makes it harder to predict the future, and predicting the future and avoiding uncertainty is one of the brain’s main functions. To make the future more predictable, share a timeline for what’s changing and repeat it.
In the end, the platitudes are sometimes right. Change is inevitable. And, it can be hard. But, it can also get you exactly the results you and your team need. The main thing to keep in mind is that change is natural, and it’s social and emotional. It’s loaded with considerations, which include how different types of people respond to change as well as the various losses inevitable to change that are important to address.
And, your mother was right (at least about this one thing): you can always change yourself. And you can use that capability to influence others to change, too.