When I do workshops, I ask the audience, “Why do people resist change?”

I get a lot of great answers such as, “Everyone likes things to be familiar,” or “What’s in it for me to change?” or “It’ll be a lot of work to change so it’s easier to do nothing.” One of the most popular answers is the “fear of the unknown.”

After many years of being the agent of change at my own company and now at my clients’ companies, I can tell you the No. 1 reason I find people resist change — fear of failure!

None of us want to fail.

It’s so ingrained in us that I have watched staff and owners cling to what they actually verbalize they hate. The cause can be a range of reasons — such as things they are doing the hard way or incorrectly. Many times they share that they hate how the team doesn’t function or there are tons of communication breakdowns and anything but a cohesive embracing of teamwork.

You’d think people in this situation would grab onto a better way being offered, like a drowning person would to a lifesaver thrown in their direction.

But, invariably the unspoken resistance built up by their own fear of failure finds a way to rear its ugly head. Fear of failure is a powerful force.

It causes staff members to skip trying to change things because if it doesn’t work out, they’ll feel as if they tried and failed, which is bound to be disappointing to them or you or both. So, the status quo wins and the misery continues.

That is unless you are willing to take this mighty foe on when you are proposing any sort of change.

Here’s what I did when I realized how powerful the fear of failure was and how much it undermined the desire for change.

I learned to say, “We’re going to change X. I know that can be scary, so I’m going to kick it in slowly over the next 30 days so everyone can get comfortable. Also, I’m going to set up the corresponding training that will make everyone, including me, better prepared to succeed and there will be no reason to fear failing here.”

It’s the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down.

Now, words are not enough. You must back up your words by:

  • Defining exactly what change you’re seeking;
  • Sharing why the company needs this change;
  • Objectively defining how everyone will know if the change is helping;
  • Sharing what resources are available to make the change become permanent; and
  • Explaining the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?), which can be either good or bad in helping to bring about this change.


Planning is important

The other thing that will derail change is trying to change too many things all at once without a plan. Change without a plan is really just an invitation to chaos. That’s why you need to focus on getting one positive change in place to build confidence and enjoy the win. Then, it makes it easier to get buy-in from the team as you seek to get the next change implemented.

If you get the input of your team about what needs changing vs. just making mandates about what must change, you greatly affect the chances that the change will be embraced. Everyone at your company is dying to have their voice heard.

Remember, even though your employees suggest a change, it doesn’t mean you have to do it. But, you do want to understand that they’re adults and adults need to be treated differently than kids.

They are owed an answer when they ask for a change and it’s typically one of the following three responses:

  • Yes, we can do that.
  • We can’t do that today but we can re-visit it in the next six months.
  • No, we can’t do that and here’s why.

Never feel pressured to answer immediately when a request for a change is made. Let your employees know they’ve been heard by writing the suggestion down and tell them when they can expect your response.

Here’s a tip. Unless you hate the idea, try to implement something they recommend that needs changing. It buys you a lot of credibility when you tell them their input is important vs. asking for input and never acting upon it.

Another strange thing about change is that people get so attached to the status quo that they will defend the old way of doing things despite the fact they groused about it for years.

As you build the momentum of positive change being implemented at your company, the pace quickens and pretty soon there are more and more people coming to your aid in moving your company in a positive direction of change.

After all, the only thing you can really count on in life and in business is change. So why not get really good at it?

This article was originally titled “Culture of change” in the May 2016 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.