Change Is Painful, and That's OK

Change Is Painful, and That's OK

Busting the three common myths of change management can increase your odds of success.

  • min read


Change Is Painful, and That's OK

This article originally appeared on

Most companies that launch major change initiatives never make it to their stated ambition. In fact, Bain & Company research has found that only 12% of transformations succeed. Why is this the case? More often than not, one of the “three myths” of change is to blame.

Myth 1: Change is irrational, hard to predict and therefore difficult to manage.

I often meet executives who talk a lot about the importance of change management, but then don’t do very much to get better at it. They have the very best of intentions, but feel change is too hard to nail down, too hard to analyze, and too hard to articulate.

In reality, our understanding of how to successfully manage change has greatly improved in recent years, largely due to a confluence of factors. For one, the accelerated pace of business today and compressed cycle times mean that change has become the new normal. Organizations are forced to learn more quickly from successes and failures, adjusting their management approach as they go. At the same time, we have new insights from behavioral science that deepen our understanding of an organization’s natural response to change, and how to effectively anticipate and address associated risks.

With a much more sophisticated understanding of what truly propels people to change, managers are able to leverage a final factor: the rise of big data. Our growing ability to assemble and analyze vast amounts of data makes it possible to assess an organization’s readiness for change, track change initiatives underway, study how well they are managed, tally their results, and do all of that quickly and with far greater accuracy. As a result, increasingly robust tools and techniques now exist to both predict and manage risks related to change.

Myth 2: It’s best to minimize the impact of change on your people.

It’s understandable. Like any mother or father trying to protect their child from danger, executives often believe that the more they shield their employees from the change ahead, the better off they’ll be. But, as any parent of teenagers knows, change and adversity come anyway. The better parenting approach is to help your children prepare for and productively manage these headwinds. They will emerge as wiser, stronger, and more resilient adults.

As it is in life, so it is in business. About 65% of corporate change initiatives require significant behavioral change on the part of employees, according to Bain research. If individual behavior doesn’t change, the organization won’t change. Since change cannot be avoided, it’s our job as leaders to help get people through that change as quickly and successfully as possible.

Myth 3: All you need is firm leadership.

It’s a pervasive belief that strong leadership and solid day-to-day management are all that’s needed when times get tough. Leadership and management do matter a great deal of course. It’s how we lead and manage that changes.

In times of disruption, management styles that leaders have developed over the years often need to be adjusted. This is hard and can feel counter-intuitive.

For example, we know that communication, especially to those most affected by the coming change, is critical. But effective communication during periods of stress is quite different from the run-of-the-mill corporate update. When people feel disrupted, for example, they lose, on average, 80% of their capacity to process information, according to behavioral science research. So prepare to repeat yourself. Employees care much more who the messenger is than about the information they are hearing, so prepare to show empathy. Positive reinforcement makes sustained behavior change possible, so prepare to look for opportunities to identify success and reinforce it. The simple fact is that traditional institutional channels of broadcast communication like webcasts, newsletters, and company-wide email are all important, but very much insufficient in these moments. Hearing directly from empathetic managers is a must.

I’ve witnessed a number of companies miss the mark on communicating their vision for change the first time around and then have to go back and try again. In one situation, an industrial conglomerate needed to overhaul its global manufacturing footprint. A number of facilities would be shuttered, and those that remained open would need significant retooling. A desire for transparency and an engineering mindset led to an initial round of presentations filled with technical details. Afterward, however, no one clearly understood what the change would mean for them. Few could even articulate why it was being undertaken.

The executives were puzzled, but a behavioral scientist wouldn’t be. After the first few minutes, staff simply was not absorbing the details. In the midst of an emotional reaction, many were stuck on basic questions like “What?” and “Why?” A simpler message would have been more effective. If two hours are allotted, for example, management should talk for no more than 15 to 20 minutes, with the remainder given over to Q&A. That gives staff a chance to talk through the implications of what they have heard, and by reflecting on what’s happening, begin to absorb it.

If 15 minutes doesn’t sound long enough, remember that in just 27 words, John F. Kennedy launched the challenge that ended with a man on the moon: “This nation,” he said, “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” In under nine seconds, Kennedy had created a sense of urgency and set a clear and memorable goal.

Now that change is the new normal, managers must stop trying to minimize it, and instead embrace and learn how to effectively manage it. Busting these myths will increase the odds of success. Remember, organizations don’t change, people do.


Ready to talk?

We work with ambitious leaders who want to define the future, not hide from it. Together, we achieve extraordinary outcomes.