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Why people don't like to change

The world is full of VUCA! For those who don’t know yet, VUCA stands for ‘volatility,uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity’. In other words: we’re living in crazy times. If you translate this to a business environment the maxim is clear: change is the only constant. But while the world is changing at a rapid pace, this cannot be said of human behavioural patterns. In other words: changing organisations from the inside is often difficult and incites a lot of opposition. Why is this?

Implementing change in an organisation, even if it is ‘for the better’, often provokes resistance. Under the guise of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’’, many people remain stubbornly attached to the existing situation, even if it is far from ideal.

Change Facilitator Heather Stagl argues that resistance signposts a deeper cause. People reject change because something prompts them to do so. This could be mixed feelings about the change, but also uncertainty, cold feet, or simply not knowing why something is changing.

Change is difficult, as it involves losing control. It often interferes with routines and habits, which is something we have a hard time with. Change also scares people: am going to fall short? Will I have to work harder? Will I lose my job now?

IT projects are about change, and change is about people. When IT projects go wrong, it is only rarely due to technology, and almost always due to human behaviour. A lack of adequate change management is often the basis of that behaviour. Why do people slam on the brakes when something starts to change, and what can you do about it?

The ‘why’ isn’t clear

If people don’t know and understand why something is changing, they have no reason to embrace that change. For managers who have been working on a project for months, however, the ‘why’ is usually crystal clear. So clear in fact, that they don’t understand why outsiders don’t see it immediately.

Managers must put themselves in the shoes of employees and try to empathise with their situation. That is, how have they responded to the change? What does it mean for their job, now and in the long term? And above all: what’s in it for them? How do they benefit?

When managers communicate, they should tell a logical story. A story that starts at the very beginning, so that everyone is presented with the context and evolution of the problem, and can thus better understand how the change is intended to solve it.

There is no platform for questions and feedback

In every change process, people will have questions. But many of these are not addressed because not everyone feels called – or sufficiently supported – to ask questions, voice frustrations and discuss their cold feet. Especially if there is no platform for it.

But just because you don’t hear these problems, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. It is up to managers to encourage people to ask questions, and this applies to everyone, and early in the process. Sadly, it is all too often the case that a project is prepared for months in a limited circle and then imposed on the shop floor in a single meeting of a few hours. This is asking for trouble.

In general, it’s not a problem if the management team don’t have all the answers when put on the spot. People much prefer a ‘We’re not sure about that at the moment’ than a ‘No comment’. Because if you tell people nothing, they are liable to interpret this silence as the calm before a storm and start thinking up worst case scenarios.

Managers don’t lead by example

While change management starts with a transparent and logical story, it is above all a question of leading by example and taking action. Managers who impose change, but remain on the sidelines themselves, can expect quite a bit of opposition.

After all, why should employees use new software, follow adapted procedures, approach customers differently, or enthusiastically step up a gear if their managers don’t do so themselves? ‘Be the change you want to see’, might be a platitude, but it still holds true, particularly in the workplace.

‘Setting an example is not the main factor when it comes to influencing others, it’s the only thing’, as Albert Schweitzer said. Managers who set a good example, roll up their shirtsleeves and make sacrifices themselves get a lot more from their team. Consequently, they are also able to count on much more enthusiasm and cooperation in the change process.

‘We will have to work harder’

Change costs blood, sweat and tears. Not least because it often runs parallel to one’s daily routine. Anyone who has ever supervised a complex IT process knows that it’s like changing the engine of a plane while it’s flying.

Change can be very hard work. This applies in particular to people who are closely involved in the implementation of a transformation project. Managers would do well to ensure these people are as dedicated as possible to the project and to reward them well.

In addition, every change will look like a failure when you’re halfway (Kanter’s Law). Beginnings are exciting and a good ending will usually get a lot of attention, but it’s ‘the messy middle’ that is often overlooked.

The organisation lacks leadership

Change processes – and change in general – require a number of crucial leadership skills, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor of Business at Harvard Business School and the person behind Kanter’s Law.

In an inspired TEDx talk, she discusses six leadership skills she believes are crucial in bringing about positive change: Show up, Speak up, Look up, Team up, Never give up and Lift others up.

A true leader is someone who is available and moves among their people (Show up). It is someone who makes their voice heard, is committed to setting the agenda and dares to identify problems (Speak up). A leader has a ‘nobler purpose’ and acts according to a clear vision (Look up).

Leaders are people who realise that they have to look for partners to work with (Team up). A leader does not give up, particularly not halfway through a project, once initial enthusiasm has dwindled and yet the finish line is still far from sight (Never give up). And finally: a leader is someone who does not claim success for themself, but shares it with the people in their team (Lift others up).

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