Seven Myths that Undermine Effective Change

All too often, many of us face the same dilemma when implementing change. We evaluate our internal structure, examine new options, explore uncharted territory. Finally, we devise our new plan. We roll out the new idea with fanfare and pride, step back to watch the fireworks and then . . . Pffft. The bang we expected proves to be nothing more than a fizzle. Despite the time, money and emotion we invest in new ideas, things don’t always work out the way we had envisioned. What’s gone wrong? Was the change a bad idea, or just a good idea gone bad?

Before you go back to the drawing board, take a look at the seven myths that can make any change an uphill battle. If you recognize them before you embark on a new strategy, you’ll give your plan the chance to develop across a level plain. If you’re already well into the process, take a look and see where you lost your footing. It might not be too late to recover that lost ground.

Myth 1: It’s really not that big of a change.

Leaders tend to get lulled into believing this myth for a few reasons. First, they may have contemplated the change for so long that they are too comfortable with it. The novelty has worn off and the familiarity of the idea overshadows its complexity. Second, they may be accustomed to change and aren’t as threatened by it in the way others are. Third, because leaders are not personally impacted by the change in the same way front-line employees are, they don’t perceive any real losses.

The bottom line is this: Don’t underestimate the impact of any change. Even seemingly minor changes can impact group dynamics, scheduling and other concerns like car pooling, child care, and so forth. For these reasons, change can create a negative emotional response in those affected. And don’t forget the ripple effect. A change made in one area often affects others.

Action: Involve people in the planning and implementation process. It will help you understand the impacts you hadn’t considered and will smooth the path toward success. Typically, the sooner you can involve others, the better.

Myth 2: This isn’t personal.

Managers love this myth because it allows them to see things in black and white. They are working for the good of the company and any changes are “just business.” Remember, all change is personal. Employees who have to learn new systems, report to new managers, move offices, lose responsibilities, change hours, or even lose their jobs are going to feel the impact of change at a personal level. If you want people to invest personally in their work, you have to accept that their work is personal to them.

Action: Listen to employees’ concerns and don’t tell them how they should feel about the change. Respect the contributions they have made in the past and communicate to them how they will grow into their new roles. Provide the tools to help them succeed, whether it be additional training or just extra time to find new comfort zones.

Myth 3: We don’t have to involve them.

This myth is a little tricky because you don’t have to involve employees in planning change. That is, if you aren’t concerned with outcomes. There is no doubt that finding time for communication is difficult for a busy and stressed decision maker. The time it takes to open an idea up to criticism and input is not only costly, it’s frustrating. This is one of the prices of leadership. People more readily support changes that they help develop. If you bring people in, it pays off down the road in fewer delays and costs in the implementation. It can even mean the difference between success and failure.

Action: Bite the bullet and plan constructive ways to gather employee input before the process is too far down the road for their input to have value. This is leadership in action and it pays off in employee commitment, trust and energy.

Myth 4: We have smart people, they can figure this out.

This myth is the lazy twin of Myth 3. If you don’t need to ask questions, it follows that you must not need to explain anything. People who know what to do, don’t really need guidance, right? No doubt, management has weighed the pros and cons of change prior to implementing it. Decision makers have engaged in dialogue about the change. The employees might be smart, but why not present the information to them directly and set their minds at ease? If you want to keep smart employees, then keep your employees smart. Treat their minds with respect.

Action: Make a plan to present the change, lay out the pros and cons and explain the conclusions. Ask employees to invest in the success of the plan and continue to communicate about the change after the initial implementation.

Myth 5: We will figure it out as we go.

It is true that many things must be figured out along the way, but the costs are very high for both the organization and for the people involved. The usual excuse is that “we need to take action now or we will miss our opportunity.” However, figuring it out as you go brings with it wasted time and creativity on the wrong tasks. The lack of a plan means rework and frustration.

Action: Take time to create an inclusive plan. It will save you and your organization both money and headaches.

Myth 6: They are employees. They should just get on board.

Remember that it is human nature to resist change, even positive changes. People fear loss of confidence, decreased power and even failure. They dread the unforeseen negative impacts. While it is true that people are being paid to do their job, they will do it better if their leaders help them adjust to change.

Action: Understand that dictating a change will not necessarily mean it will be supported. Expect resistance and learn from it. Many of the answers to problems that emerge come from those who are most resistant.

Myth 7: My boss understands why I am doing this.

This is the myth that sneaks up when you’re not looking. Managers have many things on their minds, many conversations in a day, and must react constantly to shifting realities. Just because you had an agreement one day doesn’t mean that the boss will be behind you later when the change is suddenly implemented or when problems arise.

Action: In addition to your initial conversations to win support for the change, follow up with emails or fact sheets that detail its benefits. Keep your managers informed about the progress of the project. Ask for advice when you need it.

These seven myths about change are often used to force quick changes in an effort to avoid the inconvenience of gathering “unnecessary” employee input. It takes real courage to slow down enough to change things in a productive way, but the benefits in credibility, customer relationships, employee morale and productivity far outweigh the costs. Remove the myths from your thought processes and create a path through change that everyone can navigate, a road that ensures success.


About the Author
Dave Jennings accelerates meaningful change. He has worked with leaders from 20 of the Fortune 500 and spoken in 23 countries. His articles and commentary have been featured in The Washington Post, Forbes, and thestreet.com. He is author of Catapulted: How Great Leaders Succeed Beyond their Experience. Contact Dave at dave@davejennings.com.
  1. John Montgomery Reply

    “This isn’t personal”. One of the biggest myths that everyone sees right through and yet managers continue to believe.

  2. David Bryce Reply

    Insightful thoughts. I wonder if you have ways to help organizations let go of these common myths? In my experience these types of beliefs are very firmly held and it may take work to overcome them. Does it take ongoing coaching, training, implementation support? My thought is if the leaders get it, this would help but not sure.

  3. Ken Lader Reply

    I can definitely see where these myths have derailed good intentions in my group. Our section does engineering for public works projects. We’ve tried to improve our workflow and scheduling, but we rarely take the time to get buy-in from the front-line employees or to create an inclusive plan for the change.

    This article serves as a good guide and reminder as we move ahead.

  4. Thomas Walker Reply

    Dave, my company is presently undergoing a massive transformation initiative so this is very timely. Thanks for clearly articulating the ‘watch outs’ and providing concrete action steps we can take to drive effective, productive and sustainable change!!

  5. Don Negri Reply

    It always surprises me that even the smallest change (like moving a copy machine) is met with resistance and taken personally. I also find it useful to involve people early with the goal and rationale for change. I am often surprised that the proposed change is often improved upon and with extensive buy in.

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