Misconceptions about change management continue to create high failure rates. Brain science is shining light on ways you can help employees accept change and take control.

In 1996, John Kotter wrote "Leading Change" and laid out eight common errors in change management, providing steps for addressing each one. Six years later, in his book "The Heart of Change," Kotter simplified those eight errors to a single, dominant underlying issue: "People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings."

Work in behavioral science supports this insight. Jonathan Haidt, in "The Righteous Mind," proposes a model where our weak reason — the "rider" — sits upon the elephant of our emotions. The rider thinks he's in charge, but for sustained energy and direction, the elephant is dominant.

The typical business is not particularly wired toward nurturing emotions, and yet an organizational change strategy that does not prioritize the emotions can be more likely to fail than one that appeals to reason. Change aversion is largely natural and largely unconscious, as Psychology Today notes. People are inherently wired to prefer the status quo.

People don't often resist or embrace changes because of reasons, but because of feelings. It isn't just that they're afraid of change. They also believe (often unconsciously) that anything they've been doing for a long time must be good.

Brain science increasingly uncovers false assumptions about how real people react to and successfully navigate change, as Forbes notes. This knowlege shows us how to establish positive habits, dismantle resistance and create virtuous cycles. Organizations should consider these findings for the best chance of acceptance of change.

Predictive Analytics Allows for Data-Driven Change

According to Harvard Business Review, "The combination of predictive analytics, large data sets, and the processing power of today's computers is starting to transform change management." Predictive analytics begin with large data sets, which typically require an initial investment in shorter but more frequent employee satisfaction or engagement "spot surveys." Organizations should be consistent in polling managers and employees after focus groups and all-hands meetings. When introducing significant change, ensure you have regular and reliable two-way channels to assess their views and levels of engagement with each major communication.

Online project management tools can help on the data-gathering side, as can online surveys. These tools put different levels of emphasis on productivity compared to engagement, collaboration or crowdsourcing, but all provide platforms that can grant deeper insights into the feelings of your employees and can track progress as you introduce change. Microsite options come with tools and templates specializing in reaching employee audiences with measurable communications that allow you to see what's working in real time. Predictive analytics tools are often affordable and adaptable, allowing organizations to easily use them for internal purposes.

Buy-In Is Better Than Perfect Alignment

According to Deloitte, there are key misconceptions regarding organizational change including potential overemphasis on senior management. For example, five executives may decide on a new direction for the organization, but successful implementation will depend on the actions of thousands of employees. A plan that comes to frontline managers and employees with no room for their insights and creativity will likely feel imposed. Buy-in starts early. As Deloitte notes, "A participative approach at this stage leverages the implementation of strategic changes. Vision means nothing if it is not shared within the organization." Investing time early on in change processes to include frontline employees may seem like an expense that's hard to justify. But it's expense that could go a really long way.

Change Is Messy

Change is about more than just risks and downsides though. Some of the strongest teams are forged in the process of successfully confronting signficant change. They learn to trust each other in shifting circumstances. That means accepting a level of messiness that most organizations are uncomfortable with.

Acknowledge mistakes up front and actively enlist the goodwill and help of employees to solve anticipated challenges when they arise. As Deloitte notes, "People should be given the opportunity to express their frustrations. In groups of similar grades and concerns, people would be asked to provide a negative statement, and for each negative statement, they would have to provide a positive one. The objective is to let people bring their own solutions to the table."

Positive Reinforcement

When communicating to frontline managers and employees, most organizations aspire to silence. They are just happy that no one is complaining. When communicating major change, silence can mean that employees don't understand the message or don't believe it will affect them. In contrast, initial noise and complaints can mean the message has been heard and felt.

Most organizations treat this reaction as a crisis to be managed away, instead of part of the process people go through when coming to terms with change. People will likely remember the tone of your messages long after they've forgotten the actual message. Keep the following tips in mind to increase your chance of success with organizational change:

  • Engage with employees to increase the likelihood of their buy-in
  • Anticipate natural resistance and tolerate noise around initial change communication
  • Set regular goals and focus on the positive to create a sense of momentum
  • Evolve the story instead of repeating yourself
  • Build momentum and attempt to avoid delay, although some pauses are inevitable and necessary
  • Keep change simple and deliver communications focused on tone and tied to momentum

Putting It All Together

Combining brain science and predictive analytics has the potential to transform change management at your organization. Implementing change successfully is a heavy lift across tangible resources, but also on the priorities and emotional energy of the affected workforce. Unsuccessful efforts can contribute to higher employee disengagement and, over time, the sense that organizational initiatives will always blow over without making an impact — not to mention turnover that occurs if the change efforts are unsuccessful, or carried out poorly. In other words, each unsuccessful change initiative can make the next one harder. If the mandate is there, invest in the tools, practices and the people that will give you a differentiated result, and beware of status quo thinking.

Tags: Change Management