Why Do Change Agents Often Fail?

Why Do Change Agents Often Fail?

brainAs the recovery begins to take shape, CEOs are increasingly optimistic and forward thinking.  As new initiatives are unleashed, it’s very tempting to want to bring in someone who will “shake things up” or be a catalyst for change.  It’s also very risky.  Studies show that up to 70% of change initiatives fail.

So why does change take so long to unfold and why do so many change agents fail?  Because as researcher Jeremy Dean writes in Psyblog,  it’s hard to influence a group as a new person.   In fact, a recent research study showed that change agents “commonly face increased negativity and outright rejection” from groups they are attempting to change, no matter how diplomatically they introduce their ideas.   The research shows that jumping in and trying to make a splash with new ideas is a very poor strategy.

“Groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it”  … until the newcomer first proves their loyalty to the group.

Jeremy outlines the 10 Rules That Govern Groups.  Among the rules are these:

  •  Group norms are very powerful, changing behavior in unexpected ways, and breeding conformity.
  • People who do not “learn the ropes” are ostracized.
  • Leaders gain trust by first conforming to group norms, and then introducing change that others would willingly follow.

That sounds pretty slow to me.  But if that approach is too slow, and jumping in with new ideas is even less effective, then what is a clever change agent to do?

If you are trying to change group behavior, research on the Neuroscience of Leadership suggests than instead of simply transmitting your own ideas to your employees, a far more effective approach is to focus team members on the desired results and then getting the team to focus on their own insights how to achieve the goals.  As author David Rock and Research Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz recently wrote:

“Attention continually reshapes the patterns of the brain … People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than do people who don't practice the specialty. In business, professionals in different functions — finance, operations, legal, research and development, marketing, design, and human resources — have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.”

That’s right.  Research shows that concentrating attention on a mental experience, over time, literally creates physical changes in brain structure.

Therefore, an effective leader will concentrate attention using a solution-focused approach, introducing questions to help teams focus on identifying and creating new behaviors.  Over time, the continual focus on new ways of thinking will create an environment where people have their own insights, and with a bit of positive reinforcement, these insights will change not only how people think short term, but will also create lasting changes in their perceptions.

Literally rewiring the brains of your team.  Powerful stuff – that’s clearly a power to be used for good or for evil.

Bob Corlett is the founder and President of Staffing Advisors. He’s been named as one of the 100 most influential people in staffing, is a nationally syndicated weekly writer for the American Cities Business Journals and is a founding member of the Editorial Advisory Board for The HR Examiner. Bob is a frequent speaker at meetings of the Society for Human Resources Management. Thousands of hiring executives read his monthly newsletter, and the Resource Center on this site contains hundreds of his articles on innovation, staffing, leadership and performance management. Bob has worked in the staffing industry since 1989, starting Staffing Advisors in 2002.