Extensive research into why organisational change is often unsuccessful has been undertaken for decades, and yet businesses still appear to struggle. Is it time for organisations to stop justifying poor change efforts with excuses that change management is too complex, and stakeholders are too resistant to change?
The following article assesses the key areas of the psychology of change, and assesses three critical themes that help ensure that change initiatives succeed.
Theme 1: Articulate the ‘why’
We often understand the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but rarely consider ‘why’ we are doing something…
In order to create a meaningful case for change, it is vital that people understand why the change needs to happen. Similar to goal-setting, where research has demonstrated that establishing specific goals is a major source of motivation, articulating a vision creates a mental picture of the future that individuals can strive towards. It injects passion into our work, and generates a desire to grow and improve, thus providing us with a sense of purpose and belief. These feelings of purpose, cause and belief can be traced back to our limbic system.
The limbic system, first defined by Paul Broca in the nineteenth century, is a collection of brain structures located in the middle of the brain. It is responsible for controlling our emotions, as well as other mental functions such as memory, decision-making and abstract ideas. This complex system is the reason why we are not entirely rational beings; how we feel about something or someone is more powerful than what we think about it or them. Therefore, when creating a vision and explaining the ‘why’ organisations must tap into this emotional and impulsive area of our brain. A vision for the future must be neat and concise, capturing the essence of the change, providing a well-defined purpose, and motivating people to act.
Theme 2: Leaders: Set the tone
According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), leadership is often the biggest source of resistance to change, where leaders often unconsciously respond with “behaviours that reveal their struggle to adapt to the very change they are championing”…
This can be overcome by addressing two factors: organisational culture, and combatting resistance to change.
It is widely acknowledged that the culture of an organisation is set from the top. Organisational culture broadly refers to the beliefs and values of an organisation, which subsequently influence the attitudes and behaviours of individuals. Leadership and organisational culture often come hand in hand and as such, leaders have a responsibility to assess the current culture of their organisation, and to set a tone that embraces change and enables others to act. According to Kouzes and Posner (1995), there are five practices of exemplary leaders:
- They challenge the process
- Spur a shared vision
- Model the way
- Encourage the heart
- Enable others to act.
These leadership qualities form a solid foundation for successful change management. When designing any scale of transformation, organisational culture should sit at the core, as this is key to sustaining change over time.
Leaders of an organisation must lead by example and deal directly with resistance. Listening to people, and understanding their concerns and challenges, will help to reduce resistance to change, which negatively impacts on productivity and loyalty. It is also pertinent to recognise that an individual leader cannot hold sole responsibility for achieving change. A supportive and trusting management team that operates at all levels will enable the change to be embedded at all management levels. Engaging a range of change champions that are rich in knowledge will result in a significantly smoother roll-out of a change initiative. Furthermore, change champions at multiple levels of seniority enables a consistent message to resonate through the business, and facilitates a collaborative and integrated environment.
Theme 3: Celebrate quick wins and early successes
Large change management initiatives don’t take place overnight, and the key is to focus on achieving the grand vision one step at a time…
Transformational change projects can take months, or even years, to design, plan, test and implement, but leaders should not wait this long to demonstrate improvements. Highlighting quick wins is a small but crucial victory, and one step closer to achieving the greater goal.
Kotter’s highly-regarded 8-step change model is based on decades of observing leaders and organisations as they navigated change. Step six of this process is to generate short term wins. Kotter’s research asserts that communicating small wins creates momentum, a sense of achievement and optimism.
When success stories are shared, they provide proof that change can happen, which in turn, reduces resistance to change initiatives. Communicating short term wins - however large or small - serves several purposes:
- Quick wins build momentum – continuous motivation is required to sustain long-term, transformational change. Quick wins provide energy and determinism; they build momentum and endow people to push on to the next target.
- Quick wins provide validity – a success story offers validation for our goals and vision, thereby building faith in the project. It assures us that we are on the right track to achieving the bigger goal.
- Quick wins provide recognition – celebrating a small win is a way of recognising and commending the individuals working to achieve the vision. Communicating and sharing this success promotes awareness of the change effort and is a step towards removing negative or cynical sentiments.
There is no doubt that leading change is tough. Successful, sustained change programmes require careful planning and an appreciation of the impact of powerful leadership. However, it is often the simple things that get overlooked. As humans, we are creatures of habit, preferring to continue the habits and behaviours that make us feel secure and at ease. Communicating a precise vision, establishing a culture that enables and embraces change, and celebrating early successes are essential stages in combatting an unwillingness to change, and will put organisations in the driving seat on the fascinating journey towards sustained change.
To understand how you can apply some of the above techniques to your organisation, check out our Moorhouse Change Wheel, or contact Helen Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
 Kouzes, J.M., and Posner, B.Z., (1995). Leadership practices inventing (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey.
 Kotter. J.P., (1996), Leading change. Harvard Business School Press, Boston.