Change is Not the Problem, People Are

We’ve long been told, “Change is hard.”  The prevailing wisdom is that people don’t like to change.

I was recently dealing with a leader who was trying to make organizational process changes.  Very few on the team adopted the new processes.  They didn’t argue in the meeting when it was introduced.  But they went right back to their regular work, doing things the same way they’d always done.

That’s when the mantras come out, “People don’t like change.  Change is hard.” Leadership is about getting people to change behavior.  Yet when leaders encounter resistance, the tendency is to blame the people.  Either overtly, attributing malice. Or benignly, attributing the lack of behavior change to natural human resistance.

But in my experience, people are absolutely capable of change, and fast.  If you look at the rapid social changes of the last two decades – gay marriage, an African- American President, women as viable candidates for Commander in Chief – and compare these changes to the previous thousand years, our world is on fire for change.   Within a decade we went from not knowing what an iPhone was to becoming addicted to them.  You might argue that people resisted these things, and some did.  But the majority of people changed, and they changed fast.

Edward Deming, founder of the Total Quality movement taught any time the majority of the people behave a particular way the majority of the time, the people are not the problem.  People are not resistant to change.  They’re resistant to doing additional work that adds no value to their daily life.

Imagine this, your boss calls a meeting and enthusiastically says, “We’re going to change the way we do X (pick anything, order input, customer interviews, recruiting, etc.)  This information comes to you on top of everything else you have to do.  You’re already overloaded; you can’t get your real work done, your email in box is a maze of flags and exclamation points.  And now, you’re being asked to do more.

Is your resistance to change the problem?  Hardly.  If your boss told you, “From this point forward we’re going to have on-site masseuses.  You are now required to get a fifteen-minute massage every single day.”  You would have no problem making that change.

The problem with asking people to make organizational change is that there’s no apparent benefit for them.  The leader is excited because they see the payoff.  But the people are the ones who have to do all the work.

Change expert Donna Brighton calls it the shiny object syndrome.  She says, “Leaders are great at starting things, they are not great at finishing things.”

Donna Brighton
Donna Brighton

Brighton, the founder and president of Brighton Leadership Group and President of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) says, “The number one success factor in any change, is how well the leader leads through change.  The leader helps make the way.”

Brighton says, “Instead of announcing – here’s the change, now you go implement while I’m off to the next big thing,” leaders should stay with their team through the process.  She also emphasizes the value of framing.  Instead of merely announcing a change, share the conditions that led to the decision and what the win is for the people who will be doing the work.

Change doesn’t have to be hard.  It can be invigorating.  Just don’t expect everyone else to do all the heavy lifting.