By Published On: April 14, 2019

Whether it’s due to a restructuring, downsizing, rapid growth, new leadership, or market forces, change within an organization can be difficult. People, it seems, are often wired to respond to change as a threat, triggering primal responses similar to that of being chased by a lion.

Since running away and climbing up a tree are generally not considered good coping mechanisms in the context of the workplace, understanding how these fight or flight instincts can be avoided—and why necessary or well-intentioned change can trigger them in the first place—can be helpful to those responsible for shepherding change in an organization.

Types of change initiatives

Change initiatives within a company, whatever the motivation or circumstance, generally take on one of three forms.

The first kind of organizational change is likely the easiest because it doesn’t require people to adjust the way they work. For example: Removing perimeter services in order to focus on core competencies.

The second type involves taking on new processes that align well with current mindsets, so adjustments will be minimal. For example: A company already focused on efficiency onboarding a new project management platform.

The third type of initiative is the most complex and can be the most likely to cause tension and resistance. This type of change generally entails a cultural shift and requires employees to change the way they work and the way they think, across the board.

There are many situations that exemplify this type of change, including:

  • An organization that has historically been reactive, changes their service model to become proactive
  • A manufacturer who has typically sold tangible products only to distributors, changes their sales model to include selling services directly to consumers.
  • A merger of two companies or an acquisition of a business

Some initiatives encompass more than one of these types of changes. A good example that falls somewhere between the second and third type, and for some companies, could fall squarely under culture change, is the increasing need for traditionally outbound-sales-oriented organizations to shift to a stronger marketing mindset.

With more complicated customer journeys, lengthening sales cycles, and the decreasing effectiveness of traditional outbound sales tactics like cold calling, the need for marketing to provide demand generation and inbound lead generation tactics has grown. In a perfect world, this requires sales and marketing teams to work more closely than ever before. Why then, does such a seemingly logical alliance create such discord?

The discord boils down to some relatively simple psychology. Whenever an organization declares that it must make a change, employees are likely to be uncertain about their individual role in that change.

Keys to success

Employees need to first believe that the role they play is important to its success and that the positive outcome of the change is worth them changing their behavior. Without this belief, employees may pay lip service to the idea of change, but will be slow to adopt behavioral changes that make it possible.

According to McKinsey & Company research, three conditions are needed to change behavior in an organization.

  • Reward and recognition systems must be aligned with the new behavior
  • Employees must possess or be given the opportunity to achieve the skills to do what is required
  • Everyone must see people they respect modeling the new behavior

It is key for organizations in a state of change to create or maintain psychological safety for their employees and to understand the changes asked within the context of their own organization. The “do it or else” style motivation can quickly backfire, creating resistance and foot dragging. Similarly, an organization that has been characterized by lack of follow-through in past efforts may experience employees who adopt a keep-your-head-down and this-too-will-pass attitude toward change.

A more positive, and ultimately more effective, approach to adopting change is one that clearly outlines the behaviors needed, allows for questions and input from the larger group and uses encouragement and dialog to overcome hesitation. The British Psychological Society says:

Put most simply it has been our experience that building and sustaining momentum for change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding – things like hope, excitement, inspiration, caring, camaraderie, sense of urgent purpose…”

The idea of leadership and key employees modeling the needed change in an active way is crucial to success. Finding a “committed core”—a group of employees that are willing to act as champions of the new effort and to help others understand their individual roles in it—is the secret. This will have a more dramatic impact on speed of change and overall efficacy than will one-sided proclamations from those at the top.

How do you find that committed core? It’s simple: Pay attention. In any given situation, there are certain personalities that stand out—those that are naturally curious and dedicated to the future success of the business. They are willing to offer viewpoints and support, even when they’re not asked. They come to you with ideas rather than sit back and wait for instructions. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve worked for you or what their level is. What matters is their willingness to stand up and help, and to lead by example.

In a nutshell

Change of any kind in any organization can be tricky, but with the right approach it can be a positive experience with transformative results. Be clear about what is needed from your employees, encourage behavior modeling among key people, and create an environment where the change is actively managed, not just demanded.

About the Author: Beth Seitzberg

Beth Seitzberg
During her career crafting creative Beth has conceptualized, designed, developed, strategized and overseen the building of brands, campaigns, and creative platforms for large corporations as well as for dozens of regional and local companies in every sector including financial services, manufacturing, retail, medical, and non-profit. This range of experience with clients of all sizes has honed a specialization in brand management and application of master brand strategy across channels and tactics. With a background in psychology and sociology she brings both a researcher’s behavioral approach and an artist’s instinct to her work. Beth specializes in designing outstanding, strategic creative that ties into business goals and communicates the client’s message clearly and distinctly in their unique voice.
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