Four myths—and several truths—about change management
The outcome of any change initiative is predictable, based on the mindsets of organizational leaders. Success can only be achieved if they have the right beliefs.
It’s well known that only 30% of large-scale organizational transformations succeed. This success rate was first uncovered in 1996 by John Kotter, but current research continues to prove that this disappointing statistic remains true.
So, what can business leaders do to avoid being among the other 70%?
With over 12 years of experience consulting for business transformations, I’ve observed a common pattern: the leaders of companies whose transformation efforts fall into the 70% failure rate — even when they engage change management consultants — share several common misguided beliefs about change.
In this article, I summarize my observations into four myths that get in the way of successful change adoption and result instead in “change frustration.” I also share the perspectives of workplace culture expert Ed Frauenheim on change management in flatter organizational structures.
The four myths (and their corresponding truths)
It won’t come as a surprise that the mindset of the leaders driving the change is the key ingredient to change success or change frustration. Everyone means well and wants to achieve a positive outcome for their organization and their career. But the wrong mindset can ruin good intentions. Falling victim to one or more of the following myths can trip up an otherwise well-designed change initiative. On the other hand, leaders who drive change successfully subscribe to a different set of truths from their frustrated peers.
When announcing a change, receiving no questions means we did a great job communicating.
Corresponding truth #1
No questions may mean that people probably are not feeling psychologically safe to ask them, or haven’t been given a safe space to do so. Silence isn’t always a sign of assent and understanding. Instead, it’s a prompt for leaders to learn more in individual and small-group settings.
Research has shown that organizational fear has played a major role in some corporate downfalls of leading brands that failed to embrace change disruption. Temperamental leaders who aren’t open to listening to different perspectives will miss the opportunity to hear the truth of whether their strategies are as effective as they think.
When organizational fear is present, nobody wants to be the one delivering bad news, leading to unproductive silence, filtered information, false optimism, or lies. When feedback doesn’t flow upward, top management is left in the dark about what is really going on on the ground.
Whenever a change is announced, it’s important to create spaces to listen to genuine employee feedback, and it’s even better to listen to employees before the change occurs to make informed decisions including their perspectives.
Sending a well-written, clear email, from the change sponsor explaining the changes is enough communication.
Corresponding truth #2
Communication is more effective when it’s personal and humane. Leaders should prioritize in-person meetings, short videos, and online calls to communicate major changes. You can send supporting documents through email, but other methods are often more effective.
In-person communication opens the channel to a two-way conversation, making it easier for employees to share their thoughts, whereas email communication does not provide respondents with an avenue to share their genuine reactions.
One great example of a company that does this well is CarMax. They have successfully adapted to changing environments over the years, which is why there are numerous case studies in prestigious academic institutions and business magazines about their digital transformation approach.
CarMax takes employee feedback to the next level with its product team model — small, empowered product teams of cross-functional and omnichannel associates. The product teams are self-sufficient and self-directed; they know their KPI goals and are accountable to senior leadership.
The teams also operate with a high level of transparency. Every two weeks, there are open houses for employees, where someone from each group presents their accomplishments regarding their business objectives, with the senior leadership team regularly in attendance.
CarMax is truly a bottom-up organization instead of a top-down one, and all employees are empowered to make change decisions with direct visibility to leadership.
People will accept changes if they are communicated to the entire organization by a C-suite member.
Corresponding truth #3
Announcements from C-suite members are a form of executive sponsorship, which is key for change adoption. In fact, executive sponsorship is one of the strongest predictors of successful transformations. However, people also receive change news better when it comes from people in closer proximity to them, such as their managers. People leaders who can articulate the initiative and field hard questions instill confidence in employees.
People want to hear about changes directly from their people managers. Hearing things once in a staff meeting, or reading an email, is often not enough. Employees consistently report feeling more psychologically safe going through a change when their people manager is informed and able to answer their questions.
Ultimately, it is better if change news can be delivered initially by people managers in an individual setting, prior to larger staff-meeting announcements. A best practice is to have a standing agenda to address news and reactions related to the change throughout team meetings, one-on-one touchpoints, and later staff meetings.
Asking for additional clarity on decisions made by executives makes a leader look junior, especially if they are in the C-suite.
Corresponding truth #4
Psychological safety at the C-suite level sets the tone for the risks people are willing to take for the sake of change. Executive teams with effective group dynamics, where changes can be respectfully discussed and constructive disagreements can inform better decisions, tend to have higher levels of cross-departmental collaboration during times of change.
Even seasoned leaders may need help to understand a new initiative and how it affects their processes and their people. Leaders can’t support a change if they don’t fully understand how it will affect them and their team — and their people will feel it. They won’t get that clarity without asking difficult questions.
Creating a strong sense of psychological safety at the C-suite level will have a ripple effect throughout the organization, as asking respectful questions will benefit the organization overall and increase its agility to adapt to changes. Some of the top US companies mandate trainings on psychological safety and failure tolerance where leaders share their own stories of failure.
An alternative to command-and-control
What I’ve described above are myths and truths about change management at traditional organizations that have a top-down hierarchical structure, where decisions are generally made by those at the top of an organizational pyramid. The truths I’ve outlined speak to the need to move away from command-and-control leadership to include employees more effectively.
To get additional perspective on change management in flatter organizational structures, I reached out to Ed Frauenheim, who has written dozens of articles about the best workplaces for Fortune, and asked him to share his insights on what we can learn about managing change in teal organizations, which are less hierarchical than typical companies.
According to Ed, teal organizations have three main principles:
- First, they practice self-management, meaning they distribute decision-making power much more than in traditional businesses.
- Second, they embrace holism, which means they invite people to show up to work as their whole selves — including emotions and intuitions they may be feeling.
- Third, they have an evolving sense of purpose, meaning they’re constantly sensing how the organization is called to change in response to the world around it.
Change management often looks very different at teal organizations compared to traditional organizations because change is just as likely to come from the front lines, or “bottom” of the organization as it is from senior leaders. In general, there’s an expectation that people who want to change something will consult with team members on how the initiative will affect all.
With far fewer changes imposed on the organization by those at the top, there’s less resistance and faster adoption by people throughout the organization.
If leaders don’t embrace a new mindset, their change efforts are likely to be more difficult. But if they do evolve toward a more inclusive, psychologically safe style, they’re likely to see their organizations in the successful 30% of transformations.
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