Change Agent Tip #15: Let’s Face It: Change is Hard

Oct 24, 2011 22 Comments by

Most Organizational Change Management (OCM) professionals know plenty of theory and have plenty of experience. But why is it that even when we bring this wealth of OCM knowledge and talent to bear, change still seems so hard?

Consider these four reasons why change is difficult:

1. Change is Personal – We can argue all day about the meaning of “organizational change” but the term itself is misleading. Organizations only change as the individuals within them change. Each stakeholder weighs the benefits and risks of adapting from their own frame of reference.

It’s not easy for Change Agents to predict or influence this very personal adoption process. That’s why stakeholder mapping, champion involvement and individual-level feedback are so critical.

2. Good Change is GoodBad Change is Bad: Change Agents (especially at the Sponsor level) owe their stakeholders two things: clear, motivational descriptions of positive change impact and honesty around the negative aspects of the change.

Try to communicate the good things about your change from as many frames of reference as possible using “what’s in it for me?” examples. Change Sponsors should also avoid sitting on bad news. I once had a Sponsor finally admit that job cuts were part of our business case ten months into a twelve-month initiative. He lost credibility by appearing to duck a negative consequence.

It’s OK to glow about a positive future as long as you follow the primary rule for change communication: Be honest.

3. Change Means Loss: I have a brilliant psychologist friend in Atlanta named Byron who once told me: “…all change is first viewed as loss”. He’s probably right. Leaving behind the comfort of our day-to-day process takes time to get used to. It’s also disruptive and distracting.

The best way for Change Agents & Sponsors to help with this challenge is to answer people’s most pressing concerns, offer clear steps to prepare and give people time to adapt.


4. Sometimes We Blow It: Recent customers of Netflix, Facebook and Bank of America have something in common: they all experienced the disastrous impact of a poorly-executed change. Each behemoth forgot to ask stakeholders before they “upgraded” their “service” and lost loyal customers as a result.

Prevent these classic OCM mistakes by:

  • Gathering and heeding the warnings, needs and opinions of key stakeholder groups.
  • Engaging the top, middle and base of your organization in defining and executing the change instead of “hammering it in”.
  • Executing a diligent approach to defining, planning for and executing your change instead of treating change as “just another communication and training thing”.

Most teams who engage OCM coaches expect to beat the odds and deliver successful adoption of the future state while minimizing misery and containing costs.

Change Agents and Sponsors are more likely to succeed if they face the difficulty of their mutual challenge up front.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Have you seen an otherwise good change go awry because Change Agents failed to emphasize the best aspects of the change to stakeholders?
  2. Is there such a thing as a completely good change or does every change have at least some negative elements?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

22 Responses to “Change Agent Tip #15: Let’s Face It: Change is Hard”

  1. Ken Wright says:

    Everyone seems to able to identify the issues and enabling factors that need to be in place to support change. I have a formula for years that helped in nearly all change programmes to support explaining some of the enabling factors. When, where and who gave it to me I have long forgotten, so forgive me the original author.

    C = D + M + p = or > SQ

    C = Change
    D = the level of Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo or the Desire for change
    M = The Model to see there this change is going to take us
    P = the Processes we need to understand to support the change
    SQ = Status Quo

    I fine it works well to explain to engineers and accountants as its formula

    Good Luck


    • Steve says:

      Thanks Ken,
      I like it. Straight to the point and based on facts. I’ll bet it goes over well with stakeholders who prefer quantitative thinking… I might just borrow it from you sometime!

  2. Tim Soden says:

    Hi Peter, Good comment and as I like exploring through different perspectives not discussing my opinions through asserted indoctrination I offer this example.

    If I start from the premise that change is hard what may I experience?

    From the outset I may seek proof to justify my beliefs and what will I learn if when agreeing to the question I already know the answer.

    Any desire to know best or fix things from superior knowledge is a profound folly.

    What is amazing is how ingrained some of the beliefs are in change managers and so why should we be surprised if we suffer from the same human foibles as our clients?

    Perhaps if we experience change is hard all we are observing is our own inability to deal with rejection of our own intransigent beliefs so we may be fixed by a collective refusal to consider an alternative perspective?

    Simple really, we do not need to read any books on this it comes from our genetic make up born of millions of years of evolution unless of course we have accepted some form of intolerant indoctrination that overrides our commonsense.

    Some consider that change management is a new religion.

    “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes”. ~ Dave Barry ~ Serious Comic.

    Arlene I agree with you, how can change be hard? No one in this business sector has slugged me on the chin or asked me to take one for the team.

    Sticks and stones…………… However I do admit to being serious work in progress.
    Kind regards, Tim

  3. Peter A. Hunter says:

    Change is not hard.

    When change is needed people get on with it and do it.
    What is hard is trying to “make” people change, that is difficult.

    Human beings hate being told what to do and their response is to resist.
    If you doubt, try telling a teenager to clean their room, see what happens.

    If however you can create the environment where people want to change then we find out how easy change really is.

    If you are finding change hard ask whether you are trying to make people do what you want, or are you trying to get them what they want.

    The answers to these questions may indicate where the real problem lies.

    Peter A Hunter

  4. Pam Kennett says:

    Change inevitably involves more work for the individual.

    I was listening to my sister-in-law who is a teacher talk (negatively) about the number and breadth of changes being introduced to our education system in the UK. It involves more learning, more preparation and work, and the theories that are being introduced are driven by political ideology and not necessarily for the benefit of the student.

    So, if you turn that around, change needs to:
    – be seen to be fun and time needs to be set aside to learn new skills, ways of working (we shouldn’t assume people will take it into their stride)
    – benefit the customer, the organization, the individual, society as a whole
    – be managed so that there aren’t too many changes happening all at once and that benefits can be tracked (so people will feel their flexibility has been justified).

  5. paul milano says:

    Change is hard because it means different things to different people in the work place we tend to model our environment into one that is comfortable to be in eg. some people will use photographs, pictures or other “homely” effects to make the time spent at work more comfortable or acceptable?

    This is a normal or natural behaviour as we spend a good part of our day (6or7 hours) doing activities that “yes we get paid for them” that we would prefer to spend elsewhere?

    It does not matter who you are i.e. male, female, shop floor or professional these are basic human emotions and to be a successful change agent these things must be given priority or at least shown to be of importance.

    Yes when at work we have to conduct ourselves to the rules of the organization that’s common sense however to be really successful in making change is to “stratify” or rank these situations amongst the biggest population possible and the most important thing is to listen and learn because the only people who know whats involved are the ones that you have just spoken with!!

  6. Kevin Gecowets says:

    Not invented here
    What’s in it for me
    We’ve always done it this way
    This didn’t work last time
    Risk = punishment
    Flavor of the month
    This too shall pass

  7. Dr. Jim Sellner, PhD. DipC. says:

    My operating assumption is that change in and of itself is not hard.
    The roadblocks are:
    – I cannot change what i don’t understand
    – Its impossible to change what i don’t see.
    – I will not change what i don’t accept.
    – Change agents do not respect, nor work with the previous three issues.
    dr. jim sellner, PhD., DipC.

  8. Tony Grima says:

    It really comes down to incentive.

    The benefits of change need to outweigh the pain of change. As an example, you often hear people say they want to lose weight but never really achieve that goal. Essentially they would like to loose weight but that desire is not strong enough to overcome hunger and the pain of exercise.

    It is not until they reach a defining point in their lives, perhaps due to a major health issue that the incentive is strong enough. So what shapes the incentive? Many things such as ego, values, upbringing etc.

  9. Declan Kavanagh says:

    Here are my 4 for what its worth:-
    1. Humans don’t like change unless they understand why? & to what?
    2. Managers/Leaders assume everyone understands the importance and urgency
    3. Often Gap analysis is subjective rather than objective, so change interventions are incorrectly calibrated.
    4. Organizations lack trust

  10. Robert Bastarache says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. It is great to benefit from everybody’s perspective on this topic.

    I believe change is difficult because too often the scope of change is too large. Instead of conducting many change initiatives that would bring us in the desired direction with many sequential successes; we start too big and fail. The problem appears when the change vision becomes the project instead of a direction.

    Obviously, we are also poor at mobilizing for change. Most of the people that resist change at work (and they are paid for it) are eager to change the world for free at night and during weekends. Many have a personal mission in which they believe (e.g. poverty elimination, environment, research for cancer, and more). They also find it hard to change the world! When they succeed, I think they usually start locally (small initiatives) instead of globally.

  11. Steve says:

    Thanks for the great link.
    The video is crisp and catchy – and applies directly to this dialogue!

  12. Steve says:

    Thanks Paul,
    I love that quote by Churchill!
    “Communication is the message received and not the message sent.”

  13. Maria (Via LinkedIn) says:


    I once found this wonderful video and used it in several workshops and meetings with different groups of stakeholders. It was quite effective and unlocked some obstacles in discussions what needs to be done in change programmes apart from drawing ARIS diagrams and finding IT solutions. Enjoy it


  14. Paul (Via LinkedIn) says:

    Hi Steve,

    A very interesting discussion? Yes change is hard for all the reasons you list I will try and give you my point of view!!

    1) Yes change is very personal and probably the most difficult obstacle to overcome? People spend most of there working life doing a job that they become proficient at even if they change companies their skill and knowledge moves with them this becomes there terms of reference something that cannot be taken away from them.

    Its almost impossible to predict the reaction because it depends on so many different conditions relating to the persons personality, education, religion, ethnic beleifs and so on all these things go towards making people unique.

    Feedback is as you sasy one of the most important issues in the propcess in fact its critical and being able to recognise behaviour patterns matching tthem to stress and the ability to determine the best strategy to overcome it?

    2) Good change is as you say only achieved when communication has been achieved from, every angle quoting as many terms of reference as possible.

    Human beings are naturally very suspicious about things they do not understand it does not matter what language is being spoken we are all the same!

    3) Change meaning loss maybe not a bad thing as long as the things we are losing are the negative things and the things we can do without another way of looking at this scenario is not to look at loss in financial terms but in terms of weight losing weight makes the load lighter to carry!

    It really does matter how you frame these things especially the contraversial points there is nothing more controversial than money so why not steer away from it and focus on something we all want to lose weight being the obvious choice.

    4) Sometimes we blow it? Well of course we do we are only human? The secret is how to turn this disadvantage into a positive situation it all depends on the “spin” you put on it and keep reminding people of that.

    To quote the BBC in their news bullitins “tell them, tell them, then tell them again its very important to get the correct message across particularly when it is bad or negative information!

    Communication is the thing that keeps nations and peoples together without it we cannot survive to quote Winston Churchill “communication is the message received and not the message sent” it may not be totally aplicable but it certainly gets the message across.


  15. Steve says:

    Thanks for the comment Ben, I had a great boss once who summed up his approach to mitigate the dangerous leadership trap you pointed out… He would tell us: “I’ll give you the what & the when (goals), and you take care of the how (process & activities).” We accomplished some pretty cool changes under his direction. -Steve

  16. Susan Vece says:

    Many large scale change initiatives begin with senior leadership envisioning a new direction/strategy and then creating the org charts to support the implementation. They gather together the mid management team to plan for the rollout of the new direction/strategy. Then they announce the new direction/strategy and plan to the rest of the organization. Like Netflix and Facebook, who failed to vet their new strategy from the viewpoint of the consumer, senior leaders and mid management often overlook how the new direction/strategy will affect the employees who will actually implement the plan. What seems like resistance to change from the leaders’ viewpoint, is often confusion around what will change and what will remain the same from the employees’ viewpoint. This is the beginning of the dis-ease that employees feel when direction/strategy changes. Leaders need to clarify roles and exam current practices, including any barriers to implementation, then clearly communicate the changes they are seeking. As in football, the coach and his team must draw the plays, give the team time to practice the plays, make adjustments to the plays based on the practice field experience, before they use the plays in the next game.

  17. Ben (Via LinkedIn) says:


    Your reasons are all quite true, but they do not explain why most change fails.

    Most change fails because it is done within an autocratic, bureaucratic framework. The autocrats at the top tend to give lots of orders and directives of what to do and when to do it thinking (erroneously) that to be their primary responsibility. These autocrats use their bureaucracies to enforce these orders and directives. All of this falls upon the workforce, human beings who are perfectly capable of deciding what to do, when to do it and how to do it (given reasonable support) and greatly value being heard, being able to add their two cents, and being treated with respect.

    Because of this obvious dichotomy, autocracy and bureaucracy tend to demotivate, demoralize and demean employees and in this state employees resist orders and therefore change. They think management is lucky they show up for work much less apply all of their creativity, innovation and productivity on their work.

    Psychologists Deci and Ryan explained all this quite well from their research into what motivates and demotivates us. Their research proved what I found to be true in my 34 years of managing people.

    Leadership is a science

  18. Steve says:

    Good point Rana!
    You’ve identified yet another risk to watch for.
    If the underpinnings of your change threaten to redefine the common ways people “get ahead” in your culture, expect people to push back… It might be helpful to review a couple of earlier posts that I did on “resistance to change” for ideas on how to address this:
    “8Ways to Deal With Resistance to Change”:
    “Why People Resist Change”:

  19. Steve says:

    Thanks for the feedback Rob,
    I totally agree with the need for sponsors to present a calm, supportive demeanor in order to demonstrate their rational support for a change. I’ve seen the difference between the results we get when sponsors “lean into” that role and when they distance themselves from the change. Absent sponsors simply stakeholders another valid reason to resist…
    – Steve

  20. Rob (Via LinkedIn) says:

    Anxiety can be a killer of change, individual as well as organizational. Where a sponsor is willing to regulate her own, maintaining a relatively calm presence in the face of the natural dis-ease of others it is more than likely they will move with her in the crunch.

    Planning is important, presence more so. It is the recognition of change as essentially an emotional process that enables sponsors to know the value of a well defined voice that connects. And when they do, the people around them will either find a way or make one all their own to succeed.

    Rob Schachter

  21. Rana (Via LinkedIn) says:

    I think that change is hard because most people feel that they have worked very hard to get to where they have arrived at. They believe that they have made good decisions throughout their career and have invested their time and effort to attain their current status. Changes that are proposed to them seem untested and a little unfair.

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