Why is change so hard?

Why Is Change So Hard?

This whole topic is one that I wish more people would discuss more openly more of the time, because if you really get right down to it, the ability to change is pretty much everything in your life. Think about it just from a work/business perspective for a second: “change” is essentially a synonym with “growth,” and that’s what all organizations are ultimately chasing. The antonym of “change” is “stagnation,” and then tends to get people fired or companies shut down.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that change can be so hard for organizations — but it’s not at all surprising, because change in organizations needs to come from changes in people, and that’s challenging.

Psychology Today wrote an article about why change is so hard back in 2009 and it’s still near the top of Google results for the topic. They break it down into four essential areas:

I would add this one, if I may: your brain is essentially wired/designed to predict threats. Any change, however large or small, can be seen as a potential threat. It can change your relationship to work, to your manager, your relevance at work, your friend circle, your relationship, etc, etc. Change is always a little bit scary. “Scary” is a synonym for “threatening.” Your brain is inherently a lazy device, even though it’s one of the most remarkable things ever created. It doesn’t want to do things that are threatening.

In a strictly business context, here’s one attempt at the five key reasons people resist change:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Mistrust
  • Loss of job security or control
  • Bad timing
  • An individual’s predisposition towards change

Lest you think this is a remotely new issue, Harvard Business Review wrote about it in their January 1969 issue.

There are probably tens of thousands of people by this point working in HR, Operations, IT, and related fields whose job title involves the term “change management.”

No organization ever does it perfectly, and what works for one organization probably won’t work for another — because organizations are inherently different, and their leadership teams are different, and their employees are different, and how they make money is different. All those things need to be considered. After all, if you have an amazing ‘change management’ strategy but it tanks your revenue, well, no one’s going to have a job in a few months/years. That’s not good either.

McKinsey has argued that true organizational change has to come from these pillars:

Stories mean more than numbers

  • Role Modeling: It has to look like leaders actually care about the changes they’re trying to implement, in other words.
  • Reinforcing Mechanisms: If you come to a meeting one day and say “We’re changing our culture,” but then every system and process is geared towards the older culture, the culture won’t change. It’s pretty much that simple.
  • Capability Building: If you want things to change in a business, that often means the skills of the people working there might need to change. There’s a huge thing around this with “Big Data” right now. Companies are scrambling to be “data-driven,” but they don’t have the people internally to do that. So they’re probably going to rush and throw tons of money at a consultant and/or hire some “data scientist” at $160K, when in reality all they need to do is showcase the needed skills back to their existing team. Someone already in-house might be able to do it!

Here’s the flip side of McKinsey’s work in this area:

This prescription is well grounded in the field of psychology and is entirely rational. One of its merits is its intuitive appeal: many managers feel that, once revealed, it is simply good common sense. And this, we believe, is precisely where things go wrong. The prescription is right, but rational managers who attempt to put the four conditions in place by applying “common sense” typically misdirect time and energy, create messages that miss the mark, and experience frustrating unintended consequences from their efforts to influence change. Why? Because when they implement the prescription, they disregard certain, sometimes irrational—but predictable—elements of human nature.

Two major problems here:

Two other problems:

  • Often, because people are stressed with their day-to-day responsibilities, they don’t stop and think about these issues — they look for relatively easy solutions. That typically leads them to throw ‘a software program’ or ‘a template’ at an issue like organizational change; that makes literally no sense. Organizational change is an issue about people and their emotions and reactions; you can’t solve people issues with software.
  • Major macro-micro split here too: leaders often hole up with each other and discuss macro-level issues like “five-year plans” and “growth opportunities” and “what we want the culture to be.” That’s all well and good, but those things actually change at the micro level, with the employees and how they’re perceiving things and processing challenges. When the macro and the micro aren’t aligned, that’s a major problem for ‘change management.’

There’s about 63 million results for ‘effective change management’ on Google, and I’d say most of the top hits involve:

  • Make sure there’s leadership buy-in
  • Make sure there’s a story around it

That makes sense, because who’s really going to do anything without leadership buy-in or leaders doing it, right? Eventually, if the people running your org are clearly lip-servicing an idea, the rank-and-file employees will do the same. That’s natural. The story thing is natural too. You can’t say “We need a new culture!” or “We need a new system!” You need to add the word “because…” in there somewhere. Without that, who’s going to even remotely care?

There’s a nice illogical basis to all this, best exemplified here:

As illogical as it may seem on the surface, the ambivalent wish to change and to say the same is pivotal in our understanding of why self-defeating, pain producing behaviors persist over time.

What do you think? Why have you seen change to be hard, in your personal life or where you work/have worked?

Ted Bauer


  1. Another great topic…I disagree that change is synonymous with growth, though. Degeneration, devolution, atrophy, etc. are all examples of change — just not “positive” change. Usually when managers and executives have some new “change” they want to implement, it’s not because they’ve poured through research and use cases where what they want to do has benefited so many people…no, usually the change they want is the result of some ridiculous policy, or supposed cost saving initiative, or simply to directly benefit their own status/pay, some governing board has some new hair-brained idea.

    Change is only good when the result is good. If a process works well, leave it alone. If there’s evidence changing that process will benefit more people than not, go ahead and change it. Change for the sake of change is usually very counter-intuitive and counterproductive.

    • I like your point about change only being good when the result is good. I should have thrown some context around that in this post.

Reply If You'd Like