The psychology of organisational change


Twenty years ago John Kotter published his famous article on organisational change, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail (you can read it here). Kotter sets out the steps required for successful transformation in organisations, and explains the common pitfalls that cause 70% of change initiatives to fail. In summary, these causes of failed change according to Kotter:

  1. Lack of sense of urgency
  2. Lack of a powerful ‘guiding coalition’
  3. Lack of vision
  4. Undercommunication
  5. Not removing obstacles
  6. Lack of planned-for short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Not anchoring the change in the organisational culture

What underpins these causes is the psychology of change, and to be more precise: the barriers we humans throw up to sabotage our own initiatives. Few but the most disenchanted employees will openly admit to sabotaging change. Few of us are ready to commit career suicide in that way, so we do it under the cover of pretense, or even without knowing it ourselves. We therefore need to consider the psychology of change as fully as we can.

What is the psychology of organisational change?

Plenty of books have been written about this, and I will not attempt to write one here. Let me instead pull one of those books into Kotter’s theory and give some examples of what I’m talking about. Robert J Marshak is a distinguished organisational dynamics scholar with an impressive organisational consulting record. He wrote an excellent book on what we (choose not to) see during organisational change: Covert Processes at Work. Managing the Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change (2006). Marshak argues that rational argumentation about the change is easy by comparison, because

 considering the covert, unconscious reactions and dynamics is almost always considered off-limits in the workplace

– Robert J.Marshak, Covert Processes at Work, p.13

 Dimensions of organisational change

Marshak identifies one overt and five covert dimensions which impact on organisational change:

  • Reasons for change: the rational and analytical logic behind the change
  • Politics: people’s interests – individual and group
  • Inspirations: values-based and visionary aspirations
  • Emotions: affective and reactive feelings
  • Mindsets: guiding beliefs and assumptions
  • Psychodynamics: anxiety-based and unconscious defenses

No prizes for guessing which is which! Now, let’s see what Marshak’s dimensions have to say about Kotter’s common causes for failure.

Cause 1. Lack of sense of urgency

Sure, people can fail to be convinced by the arguments supporting the change, and counter them with ‘rational and analytical logic’ one by one. Often there are also other reasons why people fail to mobilise: they feel they lack opportunities to help shape the vision for example. A sense of ownership is required, and not being able to shape even a small part of the new world undermines the need for urgency.

Cause 2. Lack of a powerful ‘guiding coalition’

This one can be very tricky to navigate because of inevitably conflicting interests in organisations. Good and honest insight into the political interests at work is crucial to creating a strong coalition that unites people across divides, yet is often overlooked. Stakeholder analysisis of crucial importance here.

Cause 3: Lack of vision

A shared vision shapes beliefs and principles that guide people’s decisions, which becomes even more important in uncertain times. If the vision is not clear, or it is not clearly and consistently communicated to stakeholders, staff will have great difficultly translating that vision into the mindset required to make the change a success – and stick.

Cause 4: Undercommunication

Communication is often woefully underestimated by change makers. Yes, it is hard to imagine not knowing anything about it when you’re at the centre of it. Another reason is genuine anxiety around having to broach a difficult topic. Interests may clash and complicate the process, and also most people dread being the bearer of difficult news. The creeping sabotage of unconscious defenses in individuals is very often at the root of undercommunication during change.

Cause 5: Not removing obstacles

Here too we see psychodynamics such as avoidance and denial at work, along with a reluctance to challenge vested interests. It requires identifying and naming interests which so far have been operating under the radar and in fact have relied on not being called out for a long time.

Cause 6: Lack of planned-for short-term wins

Short-term wins are an important motivator and can boost confidence, which can ‘sell’ the change to people who are unconvinced or undecided. Reporting and celebrating interrim results is important as they reveal more about the vision for the future one step at a time.

Cause 7: Declaring victory too soon

This will be grist to the political mill of those opposed to the change and a perfect opportunity to reinforce their position. For others, such disappointment leads to anxiety and stress as more uncertainty and ambiguity ensues. It can be fatal to the aspirations of those who have been supportive yet anxious at the same time.

Cause 8: Not anchoring the change in the organisational culture

Organisations are made up of people who all move at their own speed. Adjusting to the new world takes some of us longer than others, and this will be felt in the time and effort it takes to see significant changes in organisational culture. Mindset, vision, aspiration, assumptions, beliefs and the stories we tell each other all influence organisational culture. These need time to evolve.

The way an organisation goes about designing and implementing change is indicative of its culture.  It is the organisations that know how to tend to the unseen dimensions of change that are likely to be the most successful.

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:

Grass doesn’t grow by pulling the blades. It grows by tending to its roots.

We are a species in peril

We are a species in peril

Our species is in crisis. Increased psychological spaciousness is needed more than ever to help us solve the devastating problems the world faces today.

Humility in leadership, blah blah…

Humility in leadership, blah blah…

If I was given a penny for each time I read or heard that humility is key to authentic leadership, my accountant would be one happy lady indeed. Humility: [mass noun] The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance: ‘he needs the humility to accept that their way may be better’ […]