August 28, 2018

6 Barriers to Organizational Change, and How to Overcome Them

by Wendy Ryan in Change Management, Leadership

Woman on top of stairs

Change is one of few certainties in our work lives.  Regardless of industry, company size, or leadership team experience, your team or organization is bound to experience several major transitions.  If you are in a leadership role, you are in a unique position to anticipate and plan for change so as to maximize its benefits and mitigate disruption in your organization.  Why does this matter?  Because research tells us that initiatives with excellent change management are six times more likely to meet objectives than those with poor change management.  Just increasing your change management rating from “poor” to “fair” means you are three times more likely to meet objectives.

Below are six common barriers to effective organizational change, along with strategies and suggestions on how to manage them.

1) Individual Change Resistance

Most people don’t enjoy change.  The status quo tends to be more convenient and comfortable, so our resistance to a new process, strategy or organizational structure (no matter how logical or promising) is almost inevitable.  Part of our human nature involves us being very sensitive to certain kinds of perceived threats in our social environment, which by extension includes our workplace.  Harvard Business Review outlines ten reasons why individuals tend to resist change:

  1. Loss of control, especially over processes that have been built up over time.
  2. Excess uncertainty, which we seek to avoid at all costs.
  3. Surprise changes with little to no room for mental preparation.
  4. Changes to everyday work habits and routines.
  5. Loss of face, particularly for those who have built their reputation on the status quo.
  6. Concerns about competence as it relates to the new environment.
  7. More work, especially in the transition period.
  8. Ripple effects, as the change begins to affect other departments and even customers.
  9. Past resentments that can spring up against the person responsible for or affecting the change.
  10. True risks, to both your team’s happiness and livelihood.

Addressing these perceived threats at both an individual, as well as the team and organizational levels, is key to successful change management.

2) Lack of Communication

At its core, successful organizational change is really a successful communication exercise.  In fact, one study found that the single biggest reason for organizational failure to successfully implement any kind of change is “clear and frequent communication.”  When combined with your team’s natural resistance for change outlined above, this barrier makes sense. In fact, every single one of the 10 reasons for individual change resistance can least be partially mitigated through intentional and proactive communication.

Communication should take center stage in both the planning and implementation phases of change management.   Whenever a project or new direction is planned, communication should begin before its actual implementation or execution. Set clear expectations, communicate potential timelines, and report organizational progress to plan at regular intervals.  During unplanned or crisis-driven change, keeping everyone on the same page is just as critical. In a recent article, the Harvard Business Review outlined additional strategies to communicate effectively during times of intense organizational change.

3) Lack of Strategic Direction

Communication is key but will be unsuccessful if it lacks direction or a cohesive message. From the moment you begin to plan or implement any type of organizational change, first clarify your objectives.  Think of your objectives as the roadmap that will guide you to your intended destination.  Ideally, your change management strategy should include the following five components:

  1. An overarching goal or intended outcome of the process.
  2. Clear, measurable objectives related to the overall outcome.
  3. An estimated timeline of achieving your objectives.
  4. Regular benchmarks or check-ins to evaluate your progress toward goal.
  5. An outline of strategic communication to keep everyone involved on the same page.

With the right strategy, you will improve your chances of getting buy in so staff are more likely to take a productive vs. disruptive role in the change process.

4) Lack of Consistency

We all experience it, and we can all become frustrated by it. Cognitive dissonance describes what happens when your ideas, beliefs, or behaviors contradict each other. You see an ad, but the product doesn’t deliver on its promises. You experience one of your role models commit an unethical act. You hear great things about organizational change, but all you can see is the increased workload it will bring you for the next six months.

During organizational change or transition, some cognitive dissonance is inevitable. Your team will experience an initial increase in their workload and painfully discover many ways in which the new way of doing things (such as a new business software platform) is actually more time consuming or initially cumbersome than the old one.  If the gap between the perceived benefits of the change and the real work it will take to accomplish change is too long or too great, progress stalls and problems can arise.
Observing positive benefits that were promised actually materialize helps to generate buy-in on and maintain energy for change on behalf of your employees. That’s why planning so you can achieve a few early “wins” and then reinforce them frequently through communication, is so important to a successful change process.

Encourage your implementation team to speak out. Left alone, contradictions between hoped for benefits and lived reality will fester and cause resentment, which in turn will undermine the change. Then, align your communication with expectations to make sure that people experience as much consistency between their expectations and actual outcomes as possible.

5) Cultural Barriers

As soon as a project involves or affects multiple people from diverse groups, cultural barriers can emerge.  For example, if your organization is geographically dispersed, it is likely that people working in different regions will disagree not only on the impact of the change itself, but also regarding the “right” way to go about implementing it.  The often-cited 6-D Model of National Cultures by Gert Hofstede offers some insight into ways in which people in from various cultures may differ in how they perceive the world and approach their work.  Various sub-cultures within your organization can have similar effects on whether or not your change management process will be successful.

Overcoming cultural barriers to change management requires an in-depth understanding of who all the stakeholders in a change process are and what they care most about.  Frequent communication, proportional representation within your implementation team, and upward feedback channels are key to managing change in a way that integrates instead of alienating diverse groups of stakeholders within your organization.

6) Lack of (Perceived) Leadership Buy-In

The old cliché that states, “change starts at the top but happens at the bottom” still rings true.  Few organizational changes are successful without strong support and sponsorship from people at the highest levels of the organization.  Here, perception is key. You might have the necessary buy-in from the CEO, but that matters little if front line employees don’t actually know about it. Wherever possible, involve top leadership in high visibility activities that range from all staff kickoff meetings to regular small group feedback sessions. The more active and visible your organizational leaders are throughout the change process, the better.  Ideally, everyone in management should be involved in the change and actively sponsoring it.

Overcoming Adversity to Successfully Manage Organizational Change

Despite your best efforts in planning for and communicating change, expect to encounter some adversity. The key to leadership success during change is anticipation – putting appropriate strategies and process in place before you actually introduce the change.   Even seasoned executives can struggle when that change is complex in scope, long-term and/or encounters strong resistance.  Whether you are new to leadership or not, consider engaging a change management consultant to help you.  That investment can pay enormous dividends for your business by ensuring that the expected ROI for the change actually manifests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *