Why Do Reorganizations Often Fail?

The answer to this article’s title rests on a variety of complex reasons, but one factor that is frequently undervalued and dismissed is mindset. Let’s unpack why.

Fact: People Don’t Like Change

Change happens outside of us. Transition is what happens inside of us. A change can happen quickly or slowly, but our ability to accept that change and its impact takes time. In managing change, though, companies tend to focus on external and practical details like timelines, budgets, etc.

Instead, they should focus on questions around mindset, like: How is this going to land with our team? What are the human obstacles? Where will we meet resistance? How can we help people make this internal transition? 

After all, people are not resisting change. They are resisting how the change might impact them personally. 

Still, there will be resistance to change. It’s human. However, resistance doesn’t come from a bad place; it comes from our primitive drive for self-preservation. In other words, we’re designed to resist change. 

The real question is: How will you help your people navigate the inevitable resistance? 

You could leave this to chance. Or you might recommend mindfulness meditation or other practices that have been shown to contribute to wellbeing. Alternatively, you could equip your employees with the skills to be more mentally resilient. The latter involves significant time and investment, but like any good investment, there are clear returns.

I state this confidently because I have seen these returns firsthand in my work with firms that are navigating change. One of those companies is Unilever, which owns more than 400 brands and employs more than 155,000 people in 190 countries. Here’s how: 

A Story of Managing Change at Unilever

Unilever has initiated multiple major organizational restructures over the last decade to stay relevant, operationally strong, and agile in the global economy. One global function in particular, CMI (Consumer & Market Insights) has undergone numerous redesigns to maximize expertise while continuing to support brand teams with market and consumer insights. As with all major redesigns, there have been both benefits and drawbacks. 

When I came to work with the company, Unilever as a whole was in the middle of a restructuring process involving changing roles, forming new teams, people leaving the business, and recruiting new talent. While none of this was new to the company, integrating team members in the wake of these changes proved a complex undertaking.

The CMI Leadership Team needed a solution that would quickly minimize disruption, reduce pressure on internal business partners, and improve team motivation and communication before job satisfaction and employee morale were negatively impacted. Indeed, the consequences of the redesign included tension at every level, increased pressure to deliver, low bandwidth for onboarding employees, and lack of organizational clarity.

Managing this change included having a yearlong program designed to help employees accelerate the development of their personal presence and impact. The focus was on understanding one’s own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and the impact that these have on those around them and the business. The resulting insights and self-awareness uncovered helped participants to embrace change and effectively manage their emotions, ambitions, and behavior in the face of setbacks and uncertainty.

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The program had three phases, each built upon the insights gained during the previous one:

  • Phase 1 ascertained key challenges and training needs through interviews and surveys. The results laid the foundation for change through individual emotional and social-intelligence assessments. Interviews with key managers and business partners during this phase were crucial to ensuring that the program was customized to the unique needs of the function.
  • Phase 2 was a tailored five-module multimedia online course on developing cognitive control and self-regulation. This was supplemented by regular live Q&A sessions and recurring check-in webinars.
  • Phase 3 was a series of live interactive educational webinars that cultivated social awareness and built relationship-management skills. In this final juncture, we asked participants to see and apply the theoretical knowledge gained from the previous phase in practical, real-life scenarios. Topics included motivation and productivity, confidence under pressure, conflict management, assertiveness, and giving compelling feedback, and storytelling for business. 

At the end of the program:

  • 77% of participants reported an improvement their performance
  • 79% claimed to have more confidence
  • 88% felt very or extremely motivated in their role (a 15% increase)
  • 86% felt well or very well-equipped to handle pressure and stress (a 26% increase)

Corporate Change Is Mindset Change

I won’t paint an overly rosy picture: Change is hard. It brings real human suffering. But it’s also inevitable. And when people learn to manage their emotions, ambitions, and behavior effectively in the face of setbacks and uncertainty, they unlock potential.

This highlights what is missing in traditional change management. That is, all too often, the process focuses on the practicalities of reorganization as opposed to working on the mental fitness and human ability needed to navigate change. While the former may smooth transitions and eliminate organizational hurdles, it overlooks the fact that all restructuring brings uncertainties that cannot be predicted and must be handled on the fly.

In the long term, truly sustainable change management digs beyond surface levels and provides the foundational tools that teams need to implement the day-to-day transition. When done correctly, the “mindset work” of mental fitness training transforms how teams perceive change. Rather than something that’s happening to them, they begin to sense that change is happening because of them.

That is where the secret lies. Buildings are made of brick and mortar. Companies, on the other hand, are collections of people, each with their own minds, thoughts, insecurities, emotions, dreams, and fears.

To change an organization, you must work on the human level. That means teaching individuals to identify the cognitive filters that they see the world through and make conscious decisions on how to handle situations that they cannot control. It also means equipping employees to discern self-imposed limitations and thus empowering them not just to overcome obstacles — but to exceed their own expectations.

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