In the seven years we’ve been working with clients to make change, we’ve found the biggest obstacle to organizational transformation is rarely a lack of strategy, inadequate funding, or even overstretched teams. It’s the shared belief that change is impossible. When we first talk to teams, we’ll often hear statements like “This place will never change,” or, “I’ve heard this promise before and I don’t buy it,” or even a resigned and aloof, “Good luck with that.”
Each year, we seem to progress toward ever-greater degrees of cynicism, disbelief, or disenchantment. Indeed, this may be the only progress we can discern in our lives.The Making of Modern Cynicism, David Mazella
This skepticism (and often outright cynicism) is so challenging to the change management process because it creates “a genuinely worrying prospect, a future without hope of meaningful change.” Unfortunately, if teams aren’t willing to try anything new because they’re already convinced that nothing will change, they’re probably right—it’s self-reinforcing. This isn’t to say doubt isn’t merited, or that teams have to wholeheartedly embrace change from the very start. In many cases, a certain level of skepticism is a rational response to promised change because:
- Change takes a long time. Change doesn’t happen overnight: it can take months, years, or even decades for transformation to take place. And for teams feeling immediate, concentrated pain, “eventually” may as well be “never.”
- It’s not guaranteed. Not only does change take time, folks have been burned by false promises and prior failed attempts—why should they believe that this time will be any different?
- It’s not linear. There’s no straight path from beginning to end, and no blank slate to start from, which makes it hard to feel like progress is being made. Ironically, when change does happen, teams forget they’ve ever worked any other way, and that they have the capacity to change.
- Venting is easier. Complaining is a way to bond with others—who hasn’t indulged in grousing with coworkers over drinks? Not to mention, it’s much easier and less risky than actually trying something new.
And yet, change does happen. If there’s one silver lining to be found in all the sorrow and stress of the last year, it’s definitive proof that the cynics are wrong: organizations were forced to shift to remote work and adopt hybrid work policies, acknowledge mental health, triage supply chain dilemmas, and roll out new products and processes in response to COVID-19. At the same time, they were increasingly expected to respond to social issues, beginning with a greater investment in DEI efforts.
The good news is that change doesn’t have to happen in reaction to extreme events. Organizations can choose, on their own terms, to work differently. They can consciously design the company culture they want, and implement and scale it over time. Our experience with over 100 clients in dozens of industries has shown that together, change is possible. Based on the evidence, we’ve adopted that phrase as NOBL’s internal creed: our single most pervasive and persistent belief as an organizational culture.
From One to Many: How Organizational Change Starts
Winning over an entire organization to a new way of doing things starts with individual behavior change, like checking in with your team, or re-prioritizing tasks. But how do you overcome an individual’s initial hesitancy, and convince them that their behavior can actually make an impact? According to social cognitive theory—a model for understanding how individuals learn—you need to address two key factors:
- Self-efficacy is a person’s belief that they can succeed in a specific situation—that they have the ability, and perhaps more fundamentally, the option to do something different. Various factors contribute to this belief, including:
- Performance accomplishment: If they’ve changed before, they can do it again. Remind people that they have definitely changed over the past year. Once you’ve gotten used to a new way of working, it’s easy to forget you ever did it another way.
- Vicarious experience: They can learn from others’ experience. If a colleague has changed, they can, too.
- Verbal persuasion: Others can convince people that change is possible by sharing facts, anecdotes, and perhaps a little enthusiasm. Note: this typically doesn’t work with the truly cynical, they need direct evidence of change and no argument will trump their evidence.
- Outcome expectancy is what individuals expect to achieve. People need to believe different behaviors will lead to different outcomes and understand both the benefits of action and the cost of inaction—a trade-off often left out of organizational change narratives.
Of course, one person’s actions alone can’t completely change an organization. (Even Steve Jobs, who is popularly known for his authoritarian leadership style, took 1.5 years to turn around Apple on his return.) But simply by doing something different—by making little changes over what individuals do control—an organization can build momentum and social proof. According to Stanford researchers, “Just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change. People can begin to think that change is possible, that change is important and that in the future, the norms will be different. And then, if they become persuaded and decide to change, it starts to become a reality.”
There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing this happen in real-time with our clients. Old hands that couldn’t envision things ever getting better “don’t recognize the place” while new members are thrilled to feel a sense of efficacy in their workplace. Altogether, when folks see whole departments work together anew, it not just broadens a sense of possibility for the future but a deeper belief in oneself.
I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.Georg C. Lichtenberg
The Leader’s Role: Proving It
While there’s evidence that feelings of skepticism and cynicism are actually increasing in institutions, many leaders choose to either ignore it or even surrender to it. Many leaders feel that to address it is to somehow fuel it, and some even feel that skepticism itself is impossible to change. Neither is true.
Teams need to know that leaders are aware of their skepticism. They need to hear a vision for change that’s grounded in reality, especially if this is a second or third attempt at making change. Leaders are keen to remember that where there’s change, there’s always skepticism; by acknowledging it publicly a leader might hear it for the first time, but it’s undoubtedly been among their teams since the beginning.
Moreover, leaders have to do more than cheerlead that change is possible. Indeed, too much early enthusiasm and pressure can reinforce skepticism. Leaders have to prove change is possible, starting with themselves. A leader’s personal change and transformation can be revelatory, especially for tenured folks who might have developed a fixed mindset about what’s possible.
After personal change, leaders also have to prove change is possible by fostering the conditions for teams to make change for themselves. This effort includes many responsibilities (from storytelling to accountability), but one that’s often overlooked in practice is removing obstacles: teams rarely have the power that their leaders have to say “no,” whether to bureaucracy, competing priorities, or even other teams. In times of change, a good leader isn’t necessarily the quarterback but instead a lineman, protecting teams and buying them time to make change.
Finally, once teams do make change then leaders have a responsibility to champion and amplify it. This is when cheerleading and enthusiasm are their most impactful, and when skeptics and cynics are most likely to change their beliefs: when they see irrefutable proof that change is indeed possible, together.
In Part II, we discuss some of the models that people use to think about the change management process, and why their underlying assumptions make it more difficult to change organizations.