Your Change Efforts Will Likely Fail If You Can’t Answer This Question

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Jul 21, 2021

It’s a truism that leading change is hard, but the risks of mismanaging change are even more severe than most executives realize. In the Leadership IQ study, “Why CEOs Get Fired,” interviews with 1,087 board members revealed that 31% of CEO dismissals were the result of a failure to generate enough buy-in for their change efforts.

Unfortunately, most executives are unaware of the levels of buy-in their people feel for change efforts. And far too many leaders are shocked when they discover that their employees are intensely resistant to whatever change is being pushed.

This lack of awareness comes partly from the reality that it’s usually executives who ideate the change effort.  Executives are the ones attending industry conferences, listening to consultants, reading the latest research, and as a result, initiating the new change initiatives. Whether it’s new technology, an acquisition, operational changes, etc., executives have been thinking about the need for this change for weeks, months, or even years.

However, when it comes time to announce this new change to the rest of the workforce, most leaders distill their months of research and cogitation into a brief memo that summarizes their thinking. They took months to get excited about the change, and now they expect that their employees will read one memo and feel similarly excited. 

Do you see the problem here?

The Disconnect Between Leaders and Employees

It’s critical that top leaders, especially those in HR, do much more than distill their arduous research process into a brief memo. Specifically, executives need to share some of the challenges they see that caused them to start thinking about the need for a change. 

If a company is careening towards bankruptcy, the case for making a change is pretty obvious. But for most companies, the challenges facing the organization and necessitating a change are more subtle and nuanced.

In the Leadership IQ study, “Resistance tChange in Organizations Comes From These 5 Factors,” we discovered that only 15% of employees believe that their organization always openly shares the challenges facing it. By contrast, 42% of people say their company never or rarely openly shares its challenges.

It’s a recipe for change disaster when only a tiny fraction of the workforce understands what factors caused executives to decide that a change was necessary. And if employees don’t know why leaders want to change, there’s a serious risk that they’ll think that executives are acting capriciously, or even worse, that they’re clueless.

Not only does this imperil your change efforts, this lack of understanding also damages employee engagement. The study discovered that 63% of employees who think that their organization always openly shares the challenges facing it will strongly recommend it as a great place to work. By contrast, only 6% of people who think their company never openly shares the challenges facing it will strongly recommend it. 

In other words, if an employee believes their company openly shares the challenges facing it, they’re about 10 times more likely to recommend it as a great employer.

One Simple Question

So how do you prevent this likely calamity from happening? You have to ask your employees one simple question: “Do you believe this organization needs to change?”

If you ask every employee a scaled version of this question (I recommend a 7-point scale, ranging from “Never” to “Always”) and then you dissect the results by department or division or manager, you will instantly discover where your employees do, or don’t, understand the rationale behind your change efforts.

This is a shockingly simple fix to a deeply serious problem. Of course, the reason why leaders don’t take this step has less to do with its complexity and far more to do with a lack of awareness of the problem. But always remember that even though you’re fully bought-in to a change effort, you’ve probably spent months pondering the issue and its precipitating causes. Your employees, however, are likely hearing about this for the very first time.