The Human Side of Change Management

Mark Sagor

visionAccording to a recent survey of senior executives the success rate for major change initiatives is only 54%.

Why do so many organizational change initiatives fail?

Organizations are certainly aware that their success depends on the ability to change and adapt to rapidly evolving conditions effecting markets, customers, suppliers and competitors. They assign their top management talent, often reinforced with outside consultants, to develop precise and rational plans. They invest significant time and financial resources.

Yet their efforts fail nearly half of the time.


These failed change initiatives are costly. They leave behind a sorry trail of wasted money, diminished employee morale, missed opportunities and cynicism toward future change efforts.

One answer to why so many change initiatives fail is that organizations generally spend much more time and effort developing their tactical and strategic plans than they do understanding the human dimension of change management.

They fail because leadership does not communicate a compelling vision of why every individual in every level of the organization should knock themselves out to achieve the desired change.

This is a major miscalculation, because when all is said and done, a great plan is only as good the motivation and focus of the people implementing it.

So what can you do to you make sure your team embraces your organizational plan for change and is fully committed to making it work?

Harness the engines of individual motivation.

The most powerful force you can enlist to make your plan succeed is the collective strength of your employees’ innate drive to be the best they can be, to learn and to be part of a group accomplishing something meaningful (customer benefits, community/environment benefits etc.). Communicate your vision for change in ways that will resonate with this driving force. “Reducing costs” is not as compelling a vision as “reducing costs so that we can add to our research and development efforts and leapfrog our competition with new products.”

Understand the behavioral effect the desired changes will have on the individuals in your organization.

Don’t underestimate the power of habit to defeat the power of rational thought. Organizations become enamored with their brilliant strategic plans and like to think that employees will embrace these ideas because they “make sense.” We don’t like to acknowledge how much of what we do is a result of blindly repeating what we have done before. Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” became a best seller by detailing the many ways that habit routinely defeats common sense. Understand what habits employees will need to jettison and find ways to support these changes.

Deal directly with employee anxiety.

Change makes us anxious. There is a structure in our midbrain called the amygdala that has a tendency to set off an alarm whenever we have to make a departure from our usual and safe routines. This alarm can be triggered when we meet a new person or when we think about changing the way we do something. When this fear arises we may be tempted to ditch the plan for change to make the anxiety disappear. Get out in front of employee anxiety and work to reduce it.

Limit the number of change priorities and state them clearly in behavioral terms.

When employees have too many priorities they are more likely to become uncertain of what to do and develop a “wait and see” attitude” about the organizations ability to pull off the change. Fewer behavioral goals reduces the probability of employees becoming overwhelmed.

Address imbalances between the demands of the change initiative and the resources supporting it.

Make sure employees have the time, training and resources to make the desired changes. Nothing will derail a change effort quicker than failing to supply the tools employees need to implement a change. This kind of imbalance often leads to employee burnout.

Provide encouragement and acknowledge strong effort throughout the change process.

Positive reinforcement works and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Don’t make the mistake of spending more time and effort on developing your plans for change than you do on understanding and supporting the employees who will be responsible for implementing that change.