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March 22, 2016

Four Keys to Making Organizational Change Stick



Organizational Change train tracks


Change is hard.

Academics have studied organizational change for decades, and in study after study, they’ve found that most change efforts fail to produce the intended results.

In fact, a review of 45 studies conducted over a 20-year period found the median success rate of change initiatives was just 33 percent. In every single study, less than half of the change initiatives reviewed were successful.

Whether it’s integrating a new company, entering a new market or adapting to a disruptive technology, even a well-managed organizational change project can be challenging. And for many change initiatives, management isn’t the obstacle to successful change.


Change vs. transition

Change management is relatively well understood, and gets plenty of attention in business schools, at consulting firms and in the C-suite. But the transition that people within an organization must go through during a change is often ignored.
Change management is a logical, transactional process. It usually comes with planning, a set of structures to implement it, systems and broad communication. Executives put lots of thought and detail into how they organize and manage change.

But transition is different. As an organization changes, it asks its employees to take on new roles and behaviors, to adopt new attitudes and new norms. This is a psychological and emotional process for employees. It’s not so much managed as it’s led. Effective change leadership requires trust, caring and honest communications.

A successful transition process helps employees adapt to and embrace change. If they don’t do that, though, your change project may be doomed.

A McKinsey study found that 72 percent of all change efforts failed due to employee resistance and ineffective leadership.

So how can an organization successfully lead an organizational transition to ensure success?


Four keys to change leadership

There are four keys to successful change leadership:

  • Information
  • Support
  • Encouragement
  • Reinforcement

To know when to turn each of those keys, though, you need to understand the four transition phases that employees go through during change.

1. Acknowledging. This is when employees first learn of a change. Individuals go from feeling they understand their roles to being surprised and confused. This is what you’ll often see immediately after the change initiative is announced.

2. Reacting. During this phase, employees start to worry and can become anxious. As they contemplate the news they’ve heard, they often have trouble understanding, at first, what the change might mean for them and the role they’re accustomed to playing at work.

3. Investigating. During the third phase, employees start to proactively investigate the new change. They try to figure out what the change means to them, and how they might need to alter their own attitudes and actions.

4. Implementing. During the fourth and final phase, people affected by change begin to actually implement the new way of doing things. With effective change leadership, this is the phase during which employee creativity and energy can be unlocked and harnessed to maximize the benefits of the change.

Each phase of this transition process presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

Leaders can tap creative energy and momentum to implement organizational changes faster and more effectively. But anxiety, resistance and confusion from employees can also hinder, or even kill, a change project.

Effective change leadership helps steer employees through the change process. Leaders must understand that for most employees, change is not just logical, but also an emotional process.

Why Do Change Initiatives Fail. Graphic

Why Do Change Initiatives Fail?


First key: Information

During the first phase of change, acknowledging, people often experience a sudden transition from feeling comfortable and confident in their roles to being surprised and confused as they learn of a pending change.

They might ask themselves “What does this mean for my job?” or “Is this because we weren’t performing well enough?” In some cases, employees may be concerned about job security, pay levels, changes in working conditions or whether they’ll like or be good at new job duties.

Leaders must provide lots of information during this phase. Information helps employees understand why the change is occurring, the value it can bring and how it might affect them.

During this phase, one warning sign to watch for is denial. If employees express denial about the change for a prolonged period, that could raise risks they won’t cooperate, potentially derailing the change.

Denial is a sign that employees need more information, so leaders may need to step up their communications.


Second key: Support

During the second phase, reacting, employees digest the news that change is coming. They may have accepted the facts, but many will be worried and anxious. Emotions can be very intense during this phase, and leaders must be patient. Employees need support at this stage.

Leaders must patiently answer questions, express support for employees’ work and for their value. People are seeking reassurance that the change doesn’t imperil them directly, and trying to understand how they’ll need to change.

A red flag during the second phase is resistance. If employees continue to resist change, it’s a sign they need more support. This may include leaders acknowledging employees’ fears, uncertainties and doubts about the change.

Excessive resistance can torpedo a project, so it’s important to pay close attention to what employees are thinking, feeling, saying and doing during this phase.


Third key: Encouragement

During the third phase, investigating, employees start to figure out what change means for them. They start to anticipate what their work lives will be like after the change.

For successful change efforts, this is often the point where employees start to get innovative in dealing with the change. They may come up with ideas to help implement the change program. But leaders should keep in mind that directionless, uninformed exploration can derail change.

Employees need encouragement to continue the transition through the change process.


Fourth key: Reinforcement

During the fourth and final phase, implementation, people start to put new behaviors, beliefs and roles into use. Employees must take ownership if the change is to stick. If they fail to commit to the new systems, though, the change initiative can still fail.

Because these are new attitudes and behaviors you’re asking people to adopt, they still need reinforcement. Leaders must reinforce with employees what’s expected due to the change, to ensure the change sticks.

For all the failed change efforts documented in the academic literature, there are successful examples. Want to ensure your project’s successful, too? Focus on these four keys to change leadership.

Not every responds to change the same way or at the same speed.
Learn how DLI can give you and your managers a stronger grip on how to prepare your organization for successful change.