7 failure factors for workplace change

It’s a little depressing but we all know it’s true: workplace change is difficult and failure happens. Maybe not the 70% failure rate so often cited in articles (including by McKinsey!) but failure is always an option, so to speak. Of course, it depends what you mean by “failure”. Arguably, very few projects are a complete and total write-off. But the Change and Communication ROI survey from Towers Watson in 2013 found that 45% of change initiatives fail to meet their initial objectives; and 75% fail to show benefits over the longer term. Maybe not total failures but still rather incomplete successes.

So, if you’re faced with managing workplace change (large-scale or small) what are the main factors that cause these failures?

#1 Lack of Engagement

The first issue is quite simple: the people affected by the change are not engaged with it. If a change requires somebody to do some element of their job differently, then by definition the success of that change rests upon them doing just that. But if those managing the change fail to generate some enthusiasm and commitment among such people then their apathy (or even hostility) will undermine the success.

Often, leaders are reluctant to communicate the full details of a change to the workforce and this lack of knowledge can cause a lack of necessary engagement. After all, how can you be enthusiastic about something when you don’t know enough about it? Rick Maurer (in his 2010 book, “Beyond the Wall of Resistance”) identifies three self-limiting beliefs:

  • Information isn’t shared for fear that employees “can’t handle the truth”.
  • The feeling is that it takes too long to involve and consult with the workforce.
  • Some leaders believe delegating is a sign of weakness and are reluctant to involve others in managing the change.

When people are engaged with the change process they are more likely to make it work. Involvement and open communication generate engagement; secrecy does not.

#2 Conflicts of Interest

Sometimes despite open communication from change leaders, people have good reason to be unenthusiastic about the change because it goes against their best interests. After all, if restructuring or a new product line or change of premises will result in more work, less money or even job losses, it is unrealistic to expect wholehearted commitment from your people.

It’s the old ‘what’s in it for me?’ cliché. If there is no benefit to them, people generally won’t support it.

Of course, sometimes such negative changes are inevitable and it is quite the management challenge to engage people (one tactic when jobs are under threat is to offer upskilling and other support so that people are assisted in finding a job elsewhere).

However, even in less extreme circumstances, it is hardly rare to find organisations pushing changes that are good for the bottom line by being bad for the workforce. The only way round this is to rethink your priorities – how can you adjust the aims of the business so that they (at least in part) align with the interests of the workforce?

#3 Knowledge not skills

Communication is vital but it often focuses on the what and the why rather than the how. Sure, people need to know what is changing and the reasons for it. But in order to go out and successfully do something differently, they need to develop new skills and ways to apply this new knowledge in practice.

And a quick training course is rarely enough. Skills take time to develop, they must be tested and honed and that takes time. Dropping people in at the deep end and expecting success rarely works.

#4 Change overdose

Another reason for change failure is that there is simply too much of it going on. The workforce becomes tired and jaded of the seemingly endless parade of change initiatives; each one asking them to adapt and alter their jobs and priorities. “Just another fad,” is a commonly-heard response around the water cooler. If you’re facing multiple changes (who isn’t?!) a more strategic approach is necessary, packaging the necessary changes into a programme and giving the ongoing process some structure and coherence that people can understand.

#5 Lack of senior commitment

It’s not only workforce commitment that is an issue. Too often, senior management announces an initiative or programme of changes with trumpets and fanfares and an overwhelming series of communications and engagement activities, only for everything to fade away within a month. This may be because the work is going on behind the scenes; in which case keep communicating so that people know it’s all still happening. Or it may be that management commitment and interest has faltered for some reason (a change of priorities, too much resistance to the announced changes…); in which case you should at least come clean and announce that the change is no longer going ahead and provide some clear reasons as to why.

If people just stop hearing about the change then not only does the workforce’s enthusiasm fade, but they are left feeling a touch more cynical about management announcements; which makes the next change just that little bit more difficult.

#6 Unrealistic expectations

Sometimes change leaders become discouraged when success is not instant. This is wholly unrealistic but it is easy to overlook the reality that when asking people to work in a different way, things are likely to become worse before they become better. As they apply new skills and knowledge, people inevitably make mistakes (this is all part of the learning and up- or re-skilling process) and also work more slowly as they come to grips with new methods or rules.

Setting realistic success goals for your change includes allowing for a dip in performance before the improvement.

#7 Lack of evaluation and measurement

This is not so much a factor that results in failure as ignorance. If you don’t measure the impact of the change you can never know whether it was a success or not. At the beginning of every change process, you know the positive outcomes that you’re hoping for. Take the time to quantify them in the form of goals and objectives that can be expressed as useful metrics.


If you’re interested in change leadership issues, check out our executive coaching services; or give us a call on 01582 463465 – we’re here to help.

Categories: Boardroom, Training

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