Collaborative Leadership Blog

The Secret to Successful Change: Your People

Nothing so undermines organizational change as the failure to think through the losses people face.

–William Bridges, Managing Transitions

The Executive Team was pondering how they were going to meet a disruptive technology challenge from a competitor. They were going to have to make some significant changes. The CEO said “If we expect to beat our competition, we’re going to have to reduce headcount, rationalize our supply chain processes, and install a new IT system. This will need to happen over the next year. But let’s keep this to ourselves. We will announce it at the right time, but I don’t want our best people heading for the exits before we’re ready.”

Headcount? Really? These are living, breathing human beings they’re talking about.

Organizational change processes are intensely human endeavors. It is not just about structure or process, value generation, efficiency, or “headcount reduction”. Organizational change is about the hopes and aspirations of the workforce, their professional careers, their families, and their communities. Any significant organizational change threatens the stability of their lives. As Bridges so clearly stated above, it’s about loss, fear, anxiety, identity, and betrayal.

The reaction to these feelings is resistance to the change, anger, resentment, distrust of senior management, self-doubt, and even post-traumatic stress. What amplifies these very human feelings and makes it even more painful is when the change is being done to them, when they are not involved, engaged, or part of the change initiative in a significant way.

Most change initiatives are implemented from the top down using traditional change management strategies, which ultimately require workforce compliance. We should not be surprised that the change failure rate is very 60-70% or more. In fact, the research shows there are two main reasons for this high failure rate: (1) a lack of sustained leadership, and (2) the distracted by the next bright shiny object, then it is going to fail.

There is another way that is principled, honors the human spirit, is ethical and transparent, and engages the hearts, minds, and productive energy of the workforce so that the needed change can be achieved. It is called The Collaborative Method. The fundamental premise of this method is that to be successful, change processes must be culture-driven, people-centric, and owned by the workforce. We know that people take care of what they own—they don’t wash rented cars.

The people on the front lines of organizations not only need to understand why they have to change, they must believe in it, align with it, and own it. Ownership honors their humanity, fears, and anxieties. Ownership ensures change success.

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*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, and the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, creator of The Collaborative Method, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020.

edward.marshall@duke.edu