Why Organizational Change Doesn’t Work

Written By: Rich Mesch

February 11, 2020 – 3 min read

Change Management has really only been a thing since the 1950s. We all tend to agree on a common set of assumptions, but some research challenges conventional wisdom and may expand your thinking about change.

Gallup estimates that change management programs fail 70% of the time. Typically, senior management starts by painting a new picture of the future. Then supporting programs are planned and executed such as corporate culture programs, training, and pay structure changes. We assume that employee behavior is changed through shifting the formal corporate structure and systems. Sound familiar?

Does it work? Apparently not. Here’s why:

1. Change doesn’t start at the top.
Top-down change management is common, and many people believe it’s the “right” way. A leader identifies a need or an opportunity, she leads an initiative, gets everybody on board, and sees her vision through. But a Harvard Business Review article by Russell Eisenstat notes that the opposite may be true. Eisenstat observes that top-down change initiatives often fail. He suggests that executives need to be facilitators of change, not necessarily leaders of change. Eisenstat suggests following a grass roots approach, in which ad hoc, cross-organizational groups solve concrete business problems. This “task alignment” changes the culture and builds participation, rather than trying to build buy-in through announcements from human resources or senior leadership. As the saying goes, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”

2. Involving employees can drive change, but it has a cost.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you want to involve those affected by the change in the change process. While that’s often effective, the Journal of Change Management suggests that it can be a psychological burden for them. The Journal notes that that “Scholars have suggested that psychological ownership can have a ‘dark side’ in organizational contexts.” They warn about the potential negative impact that can occur when ownership is given to an employee, but later changes or alterations occur. This results in “negative emotions, reduced affective commitment to change, and intentions to resist change.” In other words, not every employee is prepared for the emotional challenges involved in changing the way the organization operates.

3. Invite your blockers to the table.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Well, it works for driving change, too. Author Harold Jackson observes that change opponents are typically excluded from the change process, where they become more and more marginalized. While opponents of change are often perceived as negative, the truth is they can really help drive a change initiative. Change opponents need to be part of the process—to play devil’s advocate, to help align other opponents, and as drivers of improved outcomes. Change opponents often speak for a broader group of people, who may become change champions if their concerns are addressed.

Organizational change will always be challenging, but these three insights illustrate that non-intuitive approaches can lead to the success of your change management programs.

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