I recently woke up hyperventilating and sweating profusely. After my fiancée made sure I was okay and smacked me upside the head for waking her, I realized I’d been roused from a nightmare. Now I don’t usually suffer from night terrors, but this one was particularly memorable. You may be wondering what led to this. The answer is I awoke from a nightmare where I had been asked to lead organizational change.
A recent article in Psychology Today highlighted the major pitfalls involved in change management including failed assumptions like using animal behavioral tactics to drive change as the key to success or believing that change will only come from winning over detractors. Upon reading this article, I realized that a fear of failure was causing my angst. The truth is nothing scared me more than thing—change management fails because of the power of detractors. To me, detractors represent the immovable object defeating a resistible force. In my nightmare, detractors were the wolves.
Think back to any change initiative you’ve led. Like every change initiative I am certain you had early adopters, adopters, and even laggards. But I am sure you also had detractors, derailers, and resisters all functioning to reduce your engagement and break you will. I bet you never realized this but the majority of these detractors were not from outside your organization. They weren’t customers, shareholders, or competitors. The overwhelming majority of your detractors were wolves WITHIN the walls. They were your peers and colleagues. What’s worse is some of them engaged in direct resistance while others engaged in passive resistance.
Research suggests change management fails more often than not because change was resisted by those closest to the initiative. This means you (like me) need to be prepared for the wolves within walls even more than those outside the organization.
Here are three tips for making sure you can deal with wolves within the walls:
1) Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Yes, this is the classic line from The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Its power is as strong today as when it was penned centuries ago. When thinking about organizational change this strategy is also effective. If he were schooling HR leaders headed into battle, Sun Tzu would argue that they should understand the tendencies of their peers and potential enemies. Moreover, he would use those tendencies to anticipate their attack strategies. Beyond this he would add the wisdom of Vito Corleone by advising everyone to never let anyone outside the family know what they were thinking. Change management is war and winning is about understanding your adversary.
2) Underpromise and overdeliver on the benefits of change. For years, I served as a consultant to health care systems. My favorite task was working with institutional leaders to drive change in quality of care. There is no greater challenge than building buy-in from seasoned charge nurses. Well, maybe trying to teach cultural sensitivity to surgeons but that’s a story with a hilariously-thrown shoe to be shared later. No, seriously, he threw a shoe at me for questioning his cultural awareness. Okay, back on task here, charge nurses are like the royalty of nursing. They rule the roost. The reason is they have experience and expertise. They’ve seen it all. They’ve seen change go one way and then the exact opposite direction months later. Over the years, I learned the easiest way to ensure failure in change management was by making charge nurses your adversaries. Aside from making them part of my strategy and understanding their strategies, I learned to underpromise on everything. Charge nurses have been promised the world for years. In fact, many disenfranchised employees have been promised the world for years. One easy way to ensure a fighting chance for change is to undersell as much as possible. Change must be necessary to be achieved but not every change will result in stupendous outcomes. Think of politicians. They promise result after result from change without ever achieving many of them. Don’t politick.
3) Build momentum with data. I’ve served on several change management initiatives over the years and one thing we always seem to forget is tracking our progress and celebrating our minor successes. I find that each time we so easily fell for the allure of the end goal that we sounded like Magneto warring against humans because all we wanted was mutant domination. Yes, I’m a nerdy fan boy. Having a goal is critical as my friend, Gary Latham, will attest. But failing to acknowledge where you have made strides toward your goal is a recipe for isolation and alienation. Moreover, it prevents you from sharing a winning story with your detractors. Rather than tossing the wolves a bone you help them form a hunting party. It is this alienation that also leads to passive resistance like communicating support with feigned sincerity. This lack of sincerity is perceived by others and seized upon to do you and the initiative in. Don’t succumb to the power of the end goal. Celebrate your wins and make sure everyone knows about it.
I suffer from fear of change…well, fear of change management, but with these tips I feel better prepared to fend off the wolves and succeed. What do you fear about change management? What strategies do you use to ward off the wolves within the walls? Tell us about your success in leading change.
 Kotter, J. (2002). Our Iceberg Is Melting. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.