Fear of change is a natural, sometimes rational, response to the world around us. Expect team members to instinctively resist, even when it’s in their best interest and even when they seem to be on board. It can be done, but it will take much more than a staff meeting and a slide deck.

Change threatens stability. Change threatens a person’s sense of control and generates uncertainty. However, managing change is a crucial element in professional growth. If you are not able to overcome your (or your team’s) resistance to change, you will miss opportunities and never achieve real transformations.

Common Roadblocks to Change

One of the principles of change management is “what got you here can’t always move you forward.” In a turbulent market, organizations must consistently evaluate their need for change. Otherwise, they risk being disrupted without warning or becoming irrelevant to their customers. At worst, a systemic resistance to change is the prescription for a slow and painful disintegration.

For managers, given the responsibility of explaining and implementing the change, resistance can be just as strong. After living through downsizing and outsourcing, managers often see change as a threat to their careers. For these companies, a series of unsuccessful restructuring attempts only results in workforce churn that was expensive and created new organizational problems as bad as the ones they were meant to solve. Economist Pankaj Ghemawat refers to this phenomena as “The Forgotten Strategy.” When companies don’t approach change management with commitment and strategies for overcoming roadblocks, everyone ends up saddled with the fragments of bad decisions. True change can only arise when leaders inspire a company culture that supports and encourages a “change to win” mindset.

As leaders we are responsible for identifying the need for change and making course corrections to make it possible, which is highlighted in this Brent Gleeson article. Start with better positioning to move organizational change forward, and make sure it is worth losing what must be left behind.

3 Ways of Positioning Change

In an interview with Gallup, change consultant David Jones said:

“The changes that are most successful are changes that are consistent with the culture of the organization, that are incremental in nature, that don’t push people too far out of their comfort zone, and that can be staged over a longer period of time.”

Each company has a “change resistance” profile that is entirely unique. Start your change project by identifying what has gone wrong with changes in the past and what roadblocks are most likely to appear next. You will have to work on your positioning from the very beginning if you want to position change for smoother acceptance. Here are three potential approaches:

1. Do Front End Work

Spend time upfront developing the “why?” People have to be motivated to understand why adoption of a change is so crucial to their own roles and the future of the business. Develop a communication strategy for your team, just as you would for a target customer segment. Harvard Professor John Kotter said:

“Every successful large-scale change that I have seen has, as a part of it, a change vision.”

2. Eliminate the Old System

It may sound frightening, but a critical step in the implementation process is finding the best path to stop old ways of doing things. Otherwise, people will fall back on what they know in order to get the work done as quickly as possible. Leaders need to be firm, but also offer options to allow those implementing the change to become part of the solution. The Journal of Organizational Dynamics stressed that companies need to rapidly unlearn old ways to prevent a crisis during the change process.

3. Be Clear on Consequences

Acknowledge the concerns of your employees. There will certainly be kinks that need to be worked out. Make a business case on the likely outcomes of NOT accepting this change. Use compelling stories as well as reference data to support your case. For some people, it can be more effective to showcase the downside, such as profit losses and competitive threats.

Treating Change as a Bridge

Dr. Susan Biali wrote about how people deal with fear of change in the business world:

“Everyone who has done anything unique and wonderful was probably terrified much of the time, and very likely still is.”

Change is the bridge between what was successful in the past and what will be successful in the future. Successful transformations demonstrate that your company knows how to accept change and leverage it. Leaders become proficient in how to anticipate, welcome change as a way to enhance the goals of their organization.

Change leaders should expect pushback. Assure your team that this change is critical. Prove to them that it’s OK to step out of their comfort zones. This is the only way true innovation can happen.

Never forget that change is always hard and often uncertain. People will slip back into old habits. That’s part of the process. Remind with course corrections and reinforce your vision using motivational goals and the dangers of complacency. Most people resist change, but they do like what change can bring. So sell the vision of change and call on your team to follow you into a better future.

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