Why Change Fails

changeI would argue that Change, as a process never fails, because things always change. It is more accurate to say that we fail to get the results we wanted, or needed or anticipated. Change is a subtle, natural force and it can’t be turned on and off, it has to be harnessed. If we think about how sailors use the wind and tides, or how farmers use rivers to irrigate their fields we have a better idea of the required attitude.

“Wisdom sails with wind and time”
John Florio

Change happens when we align ourselves with the natural forces in any system. If we feed things they grow; they grow where there is space (opportunities), light (attention) and nourishment. When King Canute commanded the waves to retreat he was held up to ridicule, but when a manager commands “Change”, people seem to think this is reasonable.

People will only do what they believe is in their interests to do. Let’s deconstruct that sentence, and look at some of the key words. They have to believe it is in their interests. If we fail to cover all three of these bases, then they won’t ‘play’. So, taking those elements one at a time:-

  • 1. They: it is what the staff think and feel that is crucial. The opinion of the company or the manager is only important to the degree that they hold influence / power over the individual. The greater the respect, trust or relationship that you have, then the more they will listen to you. However, never shortcut the step of explaining why this is something they need to do.
  • 2. Believe: This is a bit like a game of Monopoly, you can not move out of Jail until you have thrown a double. Nor can you begin your change programme till you have won people over. It maybe you need to start on something simpler or smaller first to gain their confidence.
  • 3. Their: everybody needs to know What Is in it For Me. We have been programmed by the forces of Nature and Evolution to survive, and each time we are asked to do something, some primitive part of our brain checks to see it helps our survival. If it feels too dangerous then we won’t do it. If the environment is one where we are not allowed to make our feelings known we will say “Yes boss”, and ignore it in every way we can. It should be pointed out that management use this tactic all the time, but it is called ‘political savvy’ when they do it rather than ‘resistance’.

The other day someone asked the question “How do I reward and recognise a team, I know that ‘more money’ isn’t the answer” and I told them that the key wasn’t M&S vouchers, flowers or days go-carting, rather it had to come from genuine, unconditional appreciation of them and their efforts. Most people are part of a pack and they need a leader who inspires them and makes them feel safe. The safest member of the pack is the most valuable one. These are very powerful and very ancient drives, and not to be ignored. We all long for the approval of ‘parent’1 figures and in our world, bosses fall into that category. However, just saying “Well done” really doesn’t do it. You have to actually mean it, people can tell the difference2. You need to show that you have seen the real them and appreciated their unique contribution.

It is a cliché to say that everyone is unique but it is true, and deep within us, we know this and we long for people to see, recognise and appreciate our unique gifts. Doing this makes us feel special, and this is a very heady ‘drug’ and we will go a very long way for more of it. However, I repeat, for it to work, it has to be real.

So to answer some more questions that I was asked “Why is it so hard to get Change Management right?” Because it is a very human process and requires sensitivities and skills that the modern workplace tends not to value or nurture. There are few courses on sensitivity: communication courses deal with slide decks rather than telling your truth.

“What are organisations doing wrong?” They adopt an engineers view of their business rather than say, a mothers. An engineer is looking for a switch he can throw to make things happen the same way every time. A mother just wants the best for her children and wants them to grow safe and happy. An engineer uses resources; a mother nurtures people. The phrase Human Resources itself tells you all you need to know…

“First you need only look: Notice and honour the radiance of Everything about you… Play in this universe. Tend All these shining things around you: The smallest plant, the creatures and objects in your care. Be gentle and nurture. Listen…”
Anne Hillman

“What can HR do to ensure change is a success?” Apart from all that is implicit in the previous paragraph, they have to become the part of the company that looks after people rather than processes them and their records. I was an accountant for 25 years, and I always thought that there was little difference between the accounts department and the HR one, apart from the things they counted. Managers are there to get the job done, but they are subject to all sorts of stresses and pressures, HR should be there to catch people when their managers can’t see what is required. They should bring objectivity to the care process. They do have the time, they should have the skills. However, as long as their prime role is ‘Hire’em ‘n’ Fire ’em’ then they will not be trusted and immediately become part of the problem for the staff.

By recognising Change as part of Nature rather than an industrial process we are much more likely to approach it with the care and sensitivities we need to make it successful. If you still aren’t convinced, then think back to some of the really good teachers either you or your children had… what were they like? They weren’t all about processes, flow charts, slide decks and emails were they? They listened, they got down to your level, they excited and encouraged you, and, when necessary, they picked you up, brushed you off and told you “Never mind.. it’ll be all right next time”

“He who nurtures benevolence for all creatures within his heart overcomes all difficulties and will be the recipient of all types of riches at every step.”

Many mangers feel that they have to check ‘the real them’ at the office door and only pick up the mantle again once they get home to their kids. However, if they dared tried using some of these softer skills, awareness and intuitions to bring along their staff with them they would be vastly more successful. Business might need a hard-nose, but it also requires a soft-heart to make Change happen. A successful change leader knows which organ to use and when!


1. Parent-Child mode – Transactional Analysis

2. Spotting the Bull


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