It was one of the most violent workshops I have ever conducted. "I know people like you" was one of the accusations I heard from one of the participants during the dialogue. Some came to apologize after the session for the heated discussion. The topic of this heated discussion? The introduction of express service to customers. Employees were fully aware why it was important, but resisted it with all their might. They were passionately against changing the way they did business and expected customers to wait for them.
Why is change so hard? Why is it that, after decades of successful change management methods, both individuals and organizations are demonstrating very poor success track records? A mere 30 percent of change programs take root and make an impact at an organizational level. Only one in 10 heart attack patients stick to their diet six months after the attack (you would think that the risk of death would be a greater motivator; apparently, it's not).
As per a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, sponsored by Strativity Group, Inc., which surveyed over 300 companies committed to change and deployed a customer centric strategy, even organizations that are committed to a new strategy fall short in preparing for execution. Only 46 percent of companies have their executives aligned and ready to support it, and only 33 percent of the organizations empower their employees to execute the designed strategy.
These questions are being amplified by the degree and speed of change we all face personally and professionally. Technology is placing a tremendous challenge on us to adapt to new tools of communication, from Skype to WhatsApp, as well as a new language of communication. Love used to be expressed in written poems and bouquets of flowers. Today, a simple heart emoji or e-card is supposed to convey our deepest feelings.
The clash between human resistance to change and the scope and speed of change today is inevitable and calls for a new review of the way we approach change.
Humans Against Change
So what is it about change that makes it so hard to do? Why is it that we can't progress? Humans are comfortable with routines by nature because they are predictable and easy to live by. Organizations seeking predictability are designed for consistency and transparency. By definition anything new is a cause for disruption and reduction of predictability. As such, we stick to our best practices (a.k.a. "as past" practices) religiously and idealize them. In short, we are designed to resist change.
Based on my work with more than 170 transformation programs affecting over 700,000 employees in 21 countries, I have learned that resistance to change goes far beyond the difficulties of adapting to the unknown. Change represents, in the eyes of people, an attack on their identity. It is perceived as a bad judgment on everything they have done in the past. The burden of facing a bad judgement of the past and questioning their identity is simply too heavy to bear.
In a British study that focused on children with stutterers and the difficulties associated with remedying them, researchers were surprised to discover that many of the children did not want to lose their stutters. From the children's perspective, losing their stutters would change who they were. "I am the stuttering kid. Who would I be without it?" they'd ask.
It is from this insight that people perceive change as a judgment of their past performance and a threat to their identity that turns the lightbulb on for us. We have to address change in a radically different way if we want to accelerate change and adoption of new behaviors.
Cause, Not Change
The starting point to any transformation is actually focusing on what does not change. We started by focusing people on the cause, their reason for existence, their mission, and values. The cause - the why? - does not change. It is the tools to achieve it (the how?) that are being adapted. By separating the cause from the tools, we created a different perspective that relaxed people and had them welcoming the required adaptations with much less resistance. They still needed to learn new skills, tools or procedures, but they would do so from the same solid core that moves their lives and motivates them. Their identities, therefore, were not threatened but rather strengthened. They are adapting in order to fulfill their missions, live their values, and fulfill their causes. By creating a platform that positions any transformation in the context of peoples' cause and reason to perform, it makes the require adaptations personal, authentic, and intrinsically motivating. It is a way to overcome the root cause of change resistance and create excitement around change.
Change is the New Normal
The reality is that change is no longer an event; it is the new normal. It happens constantly. It is a flow we need to understand and weave into our lives. We must become more agile and embrace it. It is time to change the way we change. We must view it as a way to fulfill our solid cause through ever-changing new tools and practices. Strengthening the "why?" that drives individuals with relevant and evolving "how?" tools is the new formula for change success.