Five myths about change management

October 31, 2022

What does change management look like today? And when did the need for it change?

A safe guess is a worldwide pandemic that created a pain point we have yet to comprehend. A two-year period changed how we perceive life. It scared us. It rearranged our priorities and threw us to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We dropped from Self-Actualization to Physiological Needs of food and shelter at record speed. And there was nowhere to go to find safety. And all of this represented a global unknown, the very first stage of change management. So, we are stuck in a seismic shift of emotions where all we want is security and all we are getting is an ever-accelerating level of change in organizations.

I’ve been a change catalyst for over 30 years, and never have I witnessed a more significant change event. But here’s the good news – change is not the bad guy. And it’s not shrouded in mystery. Over my years of experience, I’ve learned how to motivate people and positively impact results through behavior change; I also understand the complexity of it. Here’s my secret – people matter, and behaviors are the key to success.

Never has this factor been so poignant as it is today. And never has change been more greatly burdened by fear or so needed by organizations. Dislike of it has become mythological, and I’d like to take a few minutes to bust a few of those myths.

Myth no. 1: Change management is the creation of consultants trying to make a buck. 

While I can’t speak for all consulting companies, I can tell you that behavior change has been the topic of conversation for at least a few hundred years. As long as people are trying to lead and influence others, change needs to be at the party. As long as economies shift and weather changes and companies come and go, change has to be at the table.

Why? Because effective change management is the engine that drives organizations and projects forward to the point of integration. It does it effectively and efficiently and ensures that whatever system or process is being introduced becomes a part of the fabric of the company. But it has to be done well, and it has to be respected. Go ahead and leave it out. Take it off your final costs. You’ll spend twice the time getting half of the results. And very little will stick.

Myth no. 2: Change happens from the top down

I would say the most critical aspect of starting change management is true sponsorship and the willingness of those sponsors to be temporarily uncomfortable. If you don’t have sponsorship at the level of decision-makers, you don’t have a change project.

The reality? Sponsors start the change with top-down support, but they make it stick by being active and visible during the process. One of the most successful sales call nights I ever had occurred because every leader was expected to come to the same location as their direct reports, pick up the phone, and talk to clients. But other sponsors have been as change resistant as anyone in the company. They wanted the result, but they didn’t want to have to change themselves. And, believe it or not, people still follow the leader.

Top down can make or break the initiation of change, but the real magic of change happens from the middle out. There must be early adopters who are willing to take a chance and jump on board, creating energy with their teams. Managers who believe in the change step up and ensure the transition from project plan to people’s hands occurs. But don’t ever believe that when something starts working that the change management can end. Letting go of the project too soon is one of the biggest causes of change failure. 

Myth no. 3: Change doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.

Balderdash. The left brain is built to resist the unknown. When we see anything coming that is even slightly unfamiliar, our brain starts chattering, sharing all of the possible bad news that could come from this unknown assailant.

If someone tells me they are changing something that is culturally significant and everybody is happy, I don’t believe that change is occurring. I think a project is putting on costume jewelry to present something different when it’s just the same old outfit. While you won’t be uncomfortable during every phase of change, it is an inevitable stage. Initially, you know change is working when people are uncomfortable, and leaders are pushing back.

Myth no. 4: All aspects of change need to be confirmed before beginning communication

To keep the brain from being terrified of the unknown coming its way, it must become more comfortable with the beast that approaches. Listen carefully – you cannot overcommunicate during times of change. And you have to start at the pre-planning stage, because as soon as the first meeting kicks off the stories start.

And every time we get quiet, waiting for exact information, the stories get dark and stormy, and more prevalent.

Communicate in a constant, meaningful way during change. Be as transparent as you can. And never, ever think that people haven’t heard about some part of the project. People have heard it all. And they need to hear it from their managers. So, let’s not bombard them with nice emails or sites they can visit to get updates. They need to hear from someone they trust, a person to let them know what is happening. I’m a big believer in talking points and cascading stand-up meetings that share information, that answer questions, and elevate questions that cannot be answered.

The quieter you get, the louder the fear. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Myth no. 5: Change is about the process.

The process might be the thing that is changing, but it is not the change of which we speak. Someone could tell me that I’m going to have to use a new app at work. Seems like no big deal. Unless I don’t know why it’s changing. And I don’t know how much time I’ll have to learn the new tool. Or I’m not sure if I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it well. Or if I really have to use it at all. Change happens person-to-person. It happens through careful conversation and constant communication. It is measured by assessments and benchmarks and performance improvement.

And it requires a journey through the dark night of the unknown. If you think a process is going to lead someone into a dark swamp potentially filled with rodents of unusual size, you are incorrect. Fear is the great creator of myths. Effective change management knows how to marry metrics with behaviors and lead people through the unknown without trembling. If you’re interested in making non-mythological change at your organization, send me a message. I would love to explore the “why” and offer tips for making meaningful changes within your company.  

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Donna Highfill

Change Management Lead