The Irrational Side of Change Management
Most change programs fail, but the odds of success can be greatly improved by taking into account these counterintuitive insights about how employees interpret their environment and choose to act.
In 1996, John Kotter published Leading Change. Considered by many to be the seminal work in the field of change management, Kotter’s research revealed that only 30 percent of change programs succeed. Since the book’s release, literally thousands of books and journal articles have been published on the topic, and courses dedicated to managing change are now part of many major MBA programs. Yet in 2008, a McKinsey survey of 3,199 executives around the world found, as Kotter did, that only one transformation in three succeeds. Other studies over the past ten years reveal remarkably similar results. It seems that, despite prolific output, the field of change management hasn’t led to more successful change programs.
It also hasn’t helped that most academics and practitioners now agree on the building blocks for influencing employee attitudes and management behavior. McKinsey’s Emily Lawson and Colin Price provided a holistic perspective in “The psychology of change management,”1 which suggests that four basic conditions are necessary before employees will change their behavior: a) a compelling story, because employees must see the point of the change and agree with it; b) role modeling, because they must also see the CEO and colleagues they admire behaving in the new way; c) reinforcing mechanisms, because systems, processes, and incentives must be in line with the new behavior; and d) capability building, because employees must have the skills required to make the desired changes.
This prescription is well grounded in the field of psychology and is entirely rational. One of its merits is its intuitive appeal: many managers feel that, once revealed, it is simply good common sense. And this, we believe, is precisely where things go wrong. The prescription is right, but rational managers who attempt to put the four conditions in place by applying “common sense” typically misdirect time and energy, create messages that miss the mark, and experience frustrating unintended consequences from their efforts to influence change. Why? Because when they implement the prescription, they disregard certain, sometimes irrational—but predictable—elements of human nature.
In our research and by working with companies attempting change, we have identified nine insights into how human nature gets in the way of successfully applying the four conditions required for behavioral change. As we describe these insights, we’ll show how various companies have, either by conscious awareness or simple luck, overcome or leveraged counterintuitive sides of human behavior in making change happen.