Change is difficult. That’s a fact. Studies show that people are so resistant to change that not even the prospect of death makes them change old habits. The same goes with organizations. The same bad habits, the same resistance to change.

Change or disappear

So, what if your doctor told you that you had to make serious lifestyle changes immediately or that you were going to die prematurely? What if your doctor backed up his warning with a host of facts about your condition that clearly supported his gloomy prognosis? Would you? Could you make the necessary changes that he recommended

Remarkably, many people who are faced with that situation don’t, and many organizations faced with breasts that are equally grave behave exactly the same way. They just keep doing what they’ve been doing and hoping that their problems will somehow go away,  but change within an organization is unavoidable in its essential.

Change is unavoidable

The only constant in modern organizations is change and most of us have experienced the disruptive unsettling effects of change in our workplace and organizational changes driven by all kinds of factors

  • new growth strategies,
  • international expansions,
  • business downturns,
  • mergers and acquisitions, or
  • retrenchment strategies and the like.

These strategic choices and events can quickly require a wide variety of changes such as:

  • major restructuring,
  • workforce reductions,
  • new reporting relationships,
  • the opening and closing of facilities, or
  • more aggressive goal setting and cost-containment initiatives.

Technological advances are also a tremendous driver of change as new speedy technologies make even new speedier technologies possible companies need to reorganize themselves constantly to react or take advantage of new opportunities and as soon as your company changes its competitors will adapt in order to keep up with it which will force your company to change yet again.

Change is difficult

Essentially, today’s business environment is relentlessly dynamic and that requires each of our organizations to constantly realign their strategies and their structures to be successful. But, if change is so important what makes achieving it within an organization so difficult?

In the words of Dr. John Kotter of the Harvard business school “evidence is overwhelming that the central challenge of change is not strategy or systems or culture the fundamental problem is changing the behavior of people”.

Dr. Kotter is one of the world’s foremost authorities on change after four decades of researching organizational transformation and it makes it pretty clear that to have organizational change, changing people’s individual behavior is absolutely needed.

And yet the fact is that people and organizations often resist change and that resistance has many causes and can take many forms.  As we all know change can bring with it great economic insecurity causing people to worry about losing their jobs and livelihoods.

Barriers to change

We don’t want to change because were afraid of what it means to us economically and other fears emerge as well:

  • fear of the unknown,
  • fear of failure,
  • fear of becoming obsolete,
  • fear of losing power and control and
  • fear of losing workplace friends

In the face of these fears it’s a natural impulse to want to keep things as they are defend the status quo. And, by the way, change activities in an organization typically take place on top of our already hectic work schedules providing an added source of stress.

To make matters even worse people within an organization are not always told why changes are necessary or given the opportunity to ask questions so that they can understand how the change process will work and they may not have a lot of confidence or trust in their leaders to begin with as a result of failed change efforts in the past.

Resistance to change comes from everywhere

It sounds pretty crazy, but people can actually resist the opportunity to make more money because of past practice and how the change was presented to the workforce. But, employees are not the only source of resistance to change. Interestingly, the leadership of an organization can be just as reluctant to adapt.

In 1963 Harvard historian Dr. Alfred D. Chandler wrote an outstanding book entitled “Strategy and structure”. Dr. Chandler traced the factors that drove historical changes in some of the very largest US organizations and he discovered a key principle that was surprising back in the day.

He found that businesses were not as proactive as people believed or, rather, tended to be highly reactive. They changed only when they were forced to take action because of failing performance. Businesses took action only then when they were confronted with the harsh reality that their current strategies for doing business were no longer working in a changing marketplace.

Organizational leaders fail to change

In a nutshell, Dr. Chandler found that organizational leaders tended to allow the status quo to rule until things got pretty bad and they were forced to change out of necessity. While this behavior may be understandable, it’s a terrible abdication of responsibility.

First of all a business that only reacts to change rather than driving it proactively is unlikely to ever realize its full potential, but more importantly for this discussion meaningful change in any organization requires effective leadership, whether it’s strategic, tactical or operational change.