Updated: May 26, 2020
If you have ever been involved in a large organizational change — whether experiencing or implementing it — you’ve undoubtedly said or heard something akin to, “How do we make these employees have a mind shift? They are resisting the change because they just don’t want to change. We need people with the right mindset.” This blame-game is not just paramount in nearly every one-on-one conversation but has also been a major talking point at every conference or company-meeting I’ve ever attended.
Admittedly, I used to do this as well for the first few years of my career. I could never figure out the secret to changing other peoples’ minds. I, like many, assumed I was one of the gifted few who “just got it” and was more comfortable with and capable of change. I worked with thousands of other people and assumed the majority of them didn’t have the mentality of wanting to change with the times. Several years and countless mistakes later, it finally dawned on me …
I’m the only person that needs to have a change of “mindset”.
I was expecting hundreds of people to change how their brains work and what they value and prioritize in life over something I wanted rather than me changing my own perspective to benefit literally everyone else. I used to think my ideas were amazing and well-researched and if anyone was resisting it was because of their own insecurities or misunderstandings. In fact, the reverse was true.
The day I realized that was the day I completely changed how I implemented organizational change. These changes took what used to be months of classes, coaching, and desperately trying to convince the masses and transformed it into a few hours of proper, peer-to-peer education that never again saw resistance or skepticism. I previously discussed some aspects of my revised approach in another article, but I’ll detail below the major tenants at the core of how I now approach education and implementation when it comes to “mindset”:
Perception Is Reality
What someone believes and experiences is true for them until they are proven otherwise on their own terms. No matter how simple and clear my message is, if my audience claims it is complicated, the reality is that it is complicated. It may not be complicated to me, but it’s complicated to them, and that’s all that matters. No amount of telling them it is more simple than they think will help that.
Whether a change actually is too complex, the training didn’t efficiently explain it, or an individual needs a much lower-level walkthrough to finally get it, there is no difference to the employee. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. Whatever the reasoning, change, or situation, I need to treat whatever employees say about the change as factual or I will spend all my time and energy fighting an un-winnable battle.
The Success Of The Change Is My Responsibility
Every implementation of every change has someone or some team responsible for making it happen. These “change agents” — be it the top executives, members of HR, or external consultants — are the faces and salespeople of the change. It’s their job to make it sound good, to prove and showcase its benefits, and to successfully implement the desired change within the organization.
Unfortunately, what we often see is that change agents will blame the lack of success on employees: “They refuse to use the new system”, “They just don’t ‘get it’ like you and I”, “They don’t want to change — they just want to keep things how they are.” This creates an “us vs them” mentality within the organization and means the majority of effort in the change is spent fighting and arguing about who is right and why. Not only does this not work, but it is almost guaranteed to spawn additional problems throughout the organization.
There is only one approach I’ve ever seen work, and that is for whoever is implementing the change to accept total responsibility for what works and what doesn’t. If a simple concept is believed to be too complex, what can you do differently to make it simpler? Update your training? Remove the pieces of the change that are most heavily criticized? Explain just the simple parts and let the rest fall into place over time? There are always options for a change agent to make their training, messaging, or product work better for their audience. The main thing to know is that it should never be on employees to just take your word for it and change everything they know. Rather,
It falls on you as the change agent to make change successful.
One callout I want to make here is that this shouldn’t be used to shame yourself or other change agents when you run into insurmountable challenges. For example, if you’re a member of HR trying to implement a new process, but the CEO is actively fighting you or supporting all the managers who resist the new process, you’re never going to win. That doesn’t mean the change failed because of you. The real message behind what I’m trying to say is that under no circumstance does the fault fall on the employees. It is only those with power who have the ability and responsibility to adapt.
Change Is Different For Everyone
Some people have an easier time with change than others, but that’s often just because of what we know of the change itself, where we are at in our lives at the time, and how we perceive the benefits and risks. I only try to implement changes I think are beneficial and simple, so of course I stand behind my decisions. What I often forget is that what I consider a benefit and what someone else considers a benefit is completely different. A new company car in exchange for 5% of my pay would be a no-brainer for me, but for someone with a Tesla who is living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s all negative with no upside.
If I “just get” an idea, but others don’t, that’s not on them. My life experiences combined with my unique brain mean I understand things differently than anyone else. I may easily understand complex self-management systems, but I have no idea how to make a computer and have a hard time understanding all the big words that make people sound smart. Is that fact disconcerting? I wouldn’t know. Nothing is “obvious”. “Common sense” doesn’t exist. There is nothing that anyone “should” understand.
My point is, you need to remember that a change isn’t affecting one organization … It’s affecting numerous individuals. Each employee sees and understands the world differently than you and you need to tailor your messaging so that it has some value for each and every one of them.
Change Isn't Easy
While change is going to look and feel different for everyone, it’s difficult in some way for almost everybody. We inherently want something that is convenient, easy to understand, hassle-free, and full of benefits. Getting that, however, is easier said than done. It helps the success of a change to openly acknowledge that it isn’t easy for those going through it (and those implementing it). That same transparent honesty also helps me to figure out how I can make it easier and less scary for those impacted.
A new change is hard enough to cope with already, but the transition is often made much harder by systems already in place. People are far less likely to willingly take a risk with something new if they know they might get fired for making a single mistake or misunderstanding how things work in this new system. No matter how badly your company wants peer-to-peer conflict resolution, I’m never going to confront or challenge Billy if Billy also decides my compensation. Figure out what is in each person’s way and help remove those roadblocks for them.
People aren’t resistant to change, they are resistant to risk and uncertainty.
By constantly reminding myself of these things, it has completely changed the dynamic of how I teach and speak to others. Even better, it has radically altered how easily changes are adopted. It’s no longer ‘me vs them’, where I force a change down their throats. Now, it’s me working for them to help them with a change they want for themselves.
So, the next time you hear a change agent say, “They should change their mindset”, please remind them that it’s infinitely easier and more efficient for one person to change their own perspective rather than trying to change everyone else’s.