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Barriers to Change

Notice that the title of this article isn't Overcoming Barriers to Change. That's because developing a comprehensive list that applies to everyone would take a thousand years. But before you can even begin to tackle that, it's important to understand what barriers you're most likely to encounter, and those we will review.

Implementing a significant change is complicated. Not only must you address individual barriers to change, but the organizational dynamics that often thwart these efforts. According to Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds, it is the "twin desires of most bureaucracies to avoid expending energy and incurring blame. It is all too easy to treat lack of active opposition to a course of action as positive support. Those who harbor doubts may keep quiet because they assume that decision-makers are armed with better information, or because they want to avoid being held accountable for mistakes."

This is why it is so important to have a comprehensive change plan that takes an organization's culture into consideration. The next step is to examine the people in the organization.

Many change initiatives fail because people neglect to create a sense of urgency among stakeholders and change agents. Putting together a strong guiding team with credibility, skills, connections, reputations and formal authority is vital. This guiding team is responsible for creating sensible, uplifting visions and sets of strategies, then communicating them through as many channels as possible.

Another common barrier to change is that the nature of the work is inherently about protecting the status quo. Accounting, administration and many other operations functions are dedicated to keeping work flow moving, responsibilities balanced, and preventing mistakes. Product development, marketing and sales departments are more likely to embrace change because their work requires it in order to succeed.

We have defense mechanisms to protect our sense of self that are deeply embedded and hard-wired. These can often serve as barriers to change unless we can increase our awareness of our conscious and unconscious reactions. So if an organization is attempting to implement a peer-review, performance-based pay system, it may encounter resistance from those people who believe that their pay is a hard-won "reward" from their supervisors.

Have you ever been involved in a group feedback session? Have you noticed that some (many) people become defensive when their weaknesses are laid bare? The implied message that they must modify their behaviors or beliefs are often considered external threats.

So what does work? Helping managers be effective sponsors of change was considered the most critical success factor overall. Prosci’s Change Management Best Practices study shares the lessons and experiences of more than 280 companies from 51 countries. The report details keys to success in areas like methodology, communication, executive sponsorship and resistance management.

  1. The number one contributor to project success is strong, visible and effective sponsorship.
  2. The top obstacle to successful change is employee resistance at all levels.
  3. Employees want to hear messages about change from two people: the CEO or their immediate supervisors (these messages are not the same).
  4. When asked what they could do differently next time, most teams would begin their change management activities earlier in their next projects, instead of viewing it as an add-on or afterthought.
  5. The top reasons for employee resistance was a lack of awareness about the change, comfort with the way things are and fear of the unknown…awareness of the business need to change is a critical ingredient of any change and must come first.
  6. Middle managers resist change because of fear of losing control and overload of current tasks and responsibilities