The Human Side of Change
How to make change inevitable and resistance futile
Posted July 13, 2015
With the advent of every new management tool comes a painfully predictable wave of human resistance. The reasons people resist new methods and systems are as varied as the number of humans that have been asked to change. For instance, some employees vehemently resist change because the effects are unpredictable. Others view any changes in their quality processes as risky and fight it on principle. And let’s not forget Everett Rogers’ adoption curve. Naturally, people wait for others to embrace change before they themselves accept anything new.
When resisters, scared folks, and late adopters don’t embrace new programs, the resulting lack of shared vision and inconsistent implementation first confuses and eventually kills any change effort.
But there is good news. As wide-ranging as the reasons are for resisting change, the various forms of resistance do share one element in common: The people fighting the change are rational. They’ve thought about the change effort, measured the costs against the benefits, and have come to believe that the new methods will only make matters worse. Even when the analysis is faulty, the unseen force behind all resistance is the same. People look into the crystal ball of change and see inevitable tragedy.
Is all this cynicism surrounding change something you ought to worry about? The truth is the cost of our inability to get people to embrace new methods has been tremendous. Every management initiative in the past three decades was accompanied by massive levels of hope, money, and leadership attention. Each was based on genuine science, made a lot of sense, and had a great deal to offer the corporate world. And yet, all but one of these management initiatives are now passé, having left 75 percent or more of their once-zealous adherents with little to show but failure.
In addition to costing possible improvements, repeated failure to deliver lasting change eventually creates a culture of suspicion and resistance. New change programs born under the shadow of past failures are practically doomed. In my involvement with over fifty large-scale change efforts, I typically encountered near-fatal levels of cynicism from the start. Lack of excitement and a history of failed programs give employees evidence that the new effort will likewise fail.
The tragedy here is that these failed management tools had great potential. There was nothing wrong with most of these systems in principle. Who could argue with the need to make evidence-driven decisions, look for systemic root causes, consider upstream and downstream implications of individual tasks, focus on external stakeholders, and so on?
Unfortunately, change efforts will continue their long-standing tradition of resistance and failure—unless two things change.
What Does It Take To Succeed?
As you scan the horizon of failed change efforts, occasionally you find an organization that successfully implemented a massive change effort. Was the difference dumb luck or can you learn from the best?
In an attempt to uncover the widespread resistance to change, my partners and I interviewed leaders and teams that failed despite massive investments in training and support. Next we interviewed the teams that had adopted and aggressively implemented change initiatives. And the message could not have been more surprising.
The most startling finding was that both parties believed in their chosen content and were convinced it was the right thing to do. Both groups were highly persuaded by the merit and even the urgency of the measures. However, both groups also feared resistance to the change effort, worried about failure, and predicted the exact barriers they would face.
But there was a key difference. Groups that were successful did two things others couldn’t: They used two different skill sets—and of all things, they were social skills.
Successful groups spoke openly about anticipated problems. They were masters of what we call crucial conversations. They effectively talked about concerns and barriers and thus created the social support needed for success.
Once people have discussed concerns and established plans, it’s time to implement them. But what if people violate new processes and rules or simply behave in ways that are incongruent with the philosophy behind a change effort?
In top companies, people know how to discuss broken promises, violated expectations, or bad behavior. That is, people are skilled enough to speak in the moment and face-to-face about problems. They’re masters of what we call crucial confrontations.
To clarify, in a crucial conversation, people work through their differences of opinion. It’s about disagreement. In a crucial accountability discussion, people deal with broken promises. It’s about disappointment.
New policies, procedures, and processes will never find a footing if employees violate them without suffering consequences. In order for change initiatives to succeed, people must know how to hold one another accountable in an effective, direct, and healthy way.
Why these Skills?
Now that we know the secret of successful organizations, let’s look at the application of these best practices.
Our research into resistant and receptive teams in Six Sigma change efforts for example revealed five concerns people must resolve if they hope to adopt and sustain these valuable practices. These concerns are:
1. Upper management isn’t really committed.
2. Some of my improvement ideas could be very threatening to others.
3. My boss will never support this.
4. My peers aren’t held accountable for supporting the effort.
5. Other departments won’t cooperate.
Further, in the poorly performing teams, self-fulfilling prophecies replaced crucial conversations. Since people concluded change efforts were a sham, they silently withdrew their support. As they did so, the effort stalled confirming their original assumption that it was a waste of time. Similarly, those who believed it would never work because no one ever held their deadbeat peers accountable were so confident of their conclusion that they didn’t bother expressing it. The result? Their colleagues were not held accountable and their suspicions were confirmed.
Now, here’s why the ability to hold a crucial conversation is a key to success. To break from this unhealthy cycle, people must find a way to surface, test, and change their conclusions—or they will act them out with predictable consequences. They must be able to honestly raise these five concerns and express their ideas so change can be tailored to specific cultural dimensions and unique needs. And everybody—no matter their background, education, or expertise—needs to be able to speak and be heard.
In successful departments, when people encountered these five issues, they raised their concerns. If they effectively held a crucial accountability discussion, they influenced the other person’s behavior. They also found that reality wasn’t quite as bad as their conclusion. They’d discover, for example, that their boss was not uncommitted, he or she was overwhelmed. What was important about these accountability discussions was that they often produced change both in the other person’s behavior and in the initiator’s perception.
When all the ideas from a team are surfaced, two things happen. First, the team experiences synergy and people build off each other’s input to make the best decisions. Second, people act on those decisions with commitment and unity. In short, when stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, change efforts work best when people know how to hold crucial conversations and step up to accountability discussions.
The underlying principle is that what it takes for new and countercultural practices to take root is not a welcoming social climate. Any significant social change involves a redistribution of power and resources and attention to priorities that aren’t in some leaders’ top drawers. People will still take a look at what’s being asked of them and conclude that bad things are about to happen, so they resist.
Consequently, a change effort is less likely to fail based on the technical merits of the project than on whether or not opinion leaders are capable of dealing with the inevitable resistance. More specifically, can opinion leaders (and eventually everyone) routinely employ two important social skills? First, can they talk about and work through differences of opinion (crucial conversations)? Second, once new standards have been set, can people deal with colleagues who don’t keep their promises?
Our research and observations confirm that consistent application of crucial skills ensures success of any new and promising practice. So as you begin to implement these skills into your corporate culture, how can you ensure that they don’t become the next “flavor of the month”?
To be truthful, we’ve seen two kinds of postscripts. We’ve seen organizations where leaders brush aside their crucial skills, and, predictably, their change efforts flounder and eventually fail. But we’ve seen even more cases where leaders develop and use their skills in a way that profoundly and positively affects their leadership style. In these cases, there may be both progress and backsliding, but when they continue to pay attention to how they handle both crucial conversations and crucial accountability discussions, they enjoy significant and lasting change.