How to Overcome the Top 4 Barriers to Organizational Change
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,” Charles Darwin famously said.
This principle of evolution also applies to business. In volatile markets in which change is constant and unpredictable, companies that fail to adapt will struggle to survive.
Most leaders recognize this, and have begun searching for talent that will enable their organizations to become more nimble. Demand for soft skills, including adaptability, problem solving, creativity, and leadership, outpace calls for STEM and digital skills, according to findings from PwC’s 20th CEO Survey.
Despite this, many companies are plagued by inertia, or the inability to change to better fit current needs. They become comfortable with the status quo instead of seeking ways to improve. Although each organization faces unique challenges, there are certain common barriers to organizational change that make adapting difficult.
However, anticipating such barriers and addressing them proactively can help change managers minimize resistance and promote innovation during transition periods.
1. Seeing Change as a Threat Instead of an Opportunity
Resistance is one of the greatest barriers to organizational change. The first step to mitigating resistance is identifying what is causing it.
Often, the issue that belies resistance is not understanding why change is necessary. When the benefits of a proposed change are not clear, employees are more likely to believe it will impose undue stress in their workflow or threaten their productivity.
In some cases, the need for change is clear. For example, if a department’s performance has declined, most people will agree some sort of course correction is in order. But in other scenarios, it’s more difficult for staff to recognize the need to change. Perhaps they don’t notice that a long-held process is actually hindering efficiency, or a policy has become outdated. In these situations, employees might see a proposed change as superfluous and burdensome.
Change managers can avoid resistance by clearly explaining how the change will benefit employees. Be specific — humans are self serving creatures. They not only want to know how a change will benefit the company, they want to know how it will make their individual jobs easier. As soon as employees see a proposed change as an opportunity to succeed, they will not only stop resisting, they will advocate for it.
2. Lack of Transparency and Poor Communication from Leadership
Communication is always an essential leadership trait, but it’s even more critical for motivating employees to embrace change. An opaque leadership style and poor communication are serious barriers to organizational change.
Although the need to reform might be clear to the CEO, chief of finance and other department heads, the rest of the organization may not have access to the information and data that justifies the given change. Leaders will have a hard time rallying support if they aren’t transparent.
While a change is still in the planning stages, leaders should carefully articulate why it’s necessary, the timeline by which it will be implemented, who will be affected, what the main goals are, and how progress will be assessed, among other metrics.
Providing answers to these questions will foster greater trust between employees and leadership, and make the overall transition period smoother.
3. Not Inviting Employee Input
Giving staff a seat at the table should be more than just a courtesy. No one in your organization has better insight about what it’s like to perform a job than those who do it every day. If the need to update certain policies, implement a new software system, or rejigger a long-held process arises, solicit input from staff.
First, they could draw from their experience to provide ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to those who are farther removed from the change. Second, giving employees greater ownership of the change during the planning phase will automatically motivate them to embrace it. Finally, they will be more willing to champion the change among their peers.
4. Leaders Who Think Strategy is Set in Stone
To succeed in a rapidly evolving business world, strategy must be agile. One of the most overlooked barriers to organizational change is unwillingness among leaders to amend strategy to account for emerging internal and external forces.
The conditions that spurred transformation are subject to change as time goes on. That means change strategy must have enough flexibility built in to bend. If a change initiative is too rigid, the end goal of the change could become obsolete before it is fully implemented.
The key is not to get stuck strategizing. Although planning is an important part of effective change management, it is impossible to create a perfect strategy. Even if a strategy is perfect today, it could be worthless tomorrow. The more important aspect of change is execution.
With greater focus on execution, a company can course correct as needed, in real time. Leaders and staff won’t feel as attached to the strategy and will be better able to adapt.
There are many barriers to organizational change, but most of these are not impassable. With enough transparency, communication, input, and just the right amount of planning, organizations will become more adaptable.