How to Challenge Change Management Assumptions

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We have all heard reputed change management consultants and journals making claims such as:

Burning platforms are very powerful drivers of strategic change

“We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail”

“people naturally resist change”

creating organisational change is hard

But what evidence is there to support these claims?

In this article we outline:

  • Why these assumptions need to be challenged
  • What assumptions we need to challenge
  • How four axioms of change should form the foundation of a change management practice

WHY these assumptions need to be challenged

In his book ‘The Science of Successful Organisational Change‘ Paul Gibbons states:

‘The most shocking thing is that during more than 30 years in business, at the most senior levels, in the world’s biggest companies, dispensing consulting advice, no client ever asked me whether there was evidence to support the models, frameworks, tools, methods, and ideas I proposed using. Never.’

Even more troubling is evidence suggesting that in healthcare, there could be a negative relationship between the number of years that a practitioner has been practicing and the quality of their judgement.

So, how often do we (change management practitioners) fundamentally challenge the assumptions that make up our practice?

Maybe not as often as we should.

Like any profession, change management practitioners should be promising one thing; that the assumptions underpinning our practice are based on robust evidence.

If we don’t have robust evidence that our practice works, we have no practice…

Its all about the claim

According to the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) it is all about the claim that practitioners make and the quality of evidence that supports the claim.

Imagine your organisation is embarking on a transformation programme.  The consultants make the claim that when managing change, a transformational leadership style is more effective than a transactional one.  They even claim it will boost performance too!

Intuitively this seems to make sense.  After all, transformations need charismatic leaders who can appeal to employees on an emotional level and communicate an inspiring vision right?

Two large scale studies question this claim.  Judge and Piccolo (2004) found that while transformational leadership improves employee motivation, satisfaction with the leader and leader effectiveness it does not improve leader performance.  In fact, a transactional (contingent reward) leadership style has a more significant impact on performance.  This finding was confirmed by Chiaburu et al (2015).  They found that while transformational leadership encouraged employees to be proactive and helpful towards their colleagues, transactional leadership was a stronger driver of task performance.  They also discovered that the relationship (rather than the behaviour exhibited by the leader) between a manager and employees (called leader member exchange) trumps them all.

So, the claim that a ‘transformational leadership style is more effective than a transactional one’ is unlikely to be true.  Great leaders need to take “vision from its birth to a new way of doing business” which takes both transformational and transactional leadership styles.

Not all claims are equal

But it is not just about making unsubstantiated claims, after all we are all guilty of making generalisations.  It is the impact that those generalisations have.

Assuming that someone will like a cheese sandwich for lunch is not going to change the course of history. But believing that

‘“Orchestrating pain messages throughout the institution is the first step in developing organizational commitment to (major) change” (Daryl R. Conner, Managing at the Speed of Change p.98)

and scaring people into change could potentially be as disastrous as believing that you can scare people into not leading a life of crime .

So, the degree of business risk associated with claims should also determine the type of evidence used.

For change management the stakes are high.  But some unsubstantiated claims are probably less damaging than others.   For example, spending lots of money on a transformational leadership may not be the most efficient use of your L&D budget, but it probably won’t have a big negative impact on the organisation either.

We become what we believe

But unsubstantiated claims don’t just affect our credibility as change practitioners or burn a hole in an HR Director’s budget – it also affects an organisation’s mindset.

As Schien’s change models shows, our basic underlying assumptions manifest themselves in behaviours (artifacts).  Hatch’s cultural dynamic model takes Schien’s model a step further.  She argues that behaviours convey meaning and become symbolic within the culture of the organisation.

As agents of change, our beliefs affect the organisation’s beliefs.  If we believe employees always resist change or are somehow ‘hard-wired’ against change, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Practitioners become the virus that infects organisations against change.

WHAT are the assumptions we need to challenge?

In their recent book ‘Reconsidering Change Management’  Steven ten Have et al. outline 18 popular change management assumptions (claims).  These were collated from 54 influential books on change management and 262 interviews with managers from 43 large organisations.

They rank the trustworthiness of the studies that support (or not) the claims according to an evidence hierarchy.  Research based on before-and-after measures (called randomized control trials – RCTs) are at the top of the hierarchy because they can quantify the cause-and-effect of a claim.  Surveys are regarded as having the highest level of bias so are at the bottom of the hierarchy.  Meta-analysis studies that pull together RCT’s are the ‘gold standard’ for categorizing the trustworthiness of claims.  Based on the quality of the studies supporting (or contradicting) the assumptions, they formed conclusions on the likelihood of the assumption being true from ‘very likely’ to ‘very unlikely’.

For example, the authors suggest that the claim ‘Resistance to Change Should be Defused Early on in the Change Process’ is somewhat unlikely to be true.  This is because the studies:

  • found the effects of resistance on positive outcomes to be small
  • are only cross sectional (surveys) making it impossible to pin down the direction of the correlations.  Do employees resist change because they are dissatisfied with their jobs and/or do not trust leaders or the other way around?
  • lacked methodological rigour.

Given the amount that is authoritatively written about resistance, it is surprising how little robust (proving cause and effect) research there is on it.

Here are their results.  They might come as a shock!

There is at least one positive here.   Practitioners should stop beating themselves up about high failure rates.  There is simply no evidence to support a 70% failure rate of change interventions! And, if you believe the data – the rate of failure is going down – phew!  But they are still looming around the 40% mark.

Are Practitioners from Mars and Academics from Venus?

According to EbbnFlow’s survey of 275 change practitioners, academics and practitioners agree on 11 out of the 18 assumptions.  However, practitioners are much more cautious than academics.

Practitioners believe that 16 out of the 18 claims are likely to be true. Academics believe that only 12 are likely to be true.  The only claim they both agree is unlikely to be true is ‘70% of All Change Interventions Fail’ .

The most divisive claim was that ‘Financial Incentives Are an Effective Way to Encourage Change and Improve Performance’.  This caused a 50:50 split between practitioners who thought it was likely and those who thought it wasn’t.

The survey also asked practitioners ‘what is the likely impact on an Organisation’s Capacity to Change if these issues are not managed during your Change Management Programme’.

There are some clear areas of disagreement between practitioners and academics.

Practitioners feel that participation, self-managing teams and leadership skills (strong emotional intelligence and being transformational) are key to change.  Whereas academics find the evidence for these assumptions to be weak.

Conversely, practitioners feel that financial incentives have a minor to moderate impact on change. Academics feel they can have a big impact.

Axioms of change – the foundation of a change management practice?

Academics and practitioners do agree on four assumptions that are critical for organisations to be able to adapt to their changing environments:

  1. Creating a clear visionA vision should be ambitious, concrete, action-orientated and inspiring – a ‘vaccine against fuzzy thinking’. It should be thought of as an overarching goal that connects individual employee actions.  Not only will a clear vision increase collaboration but it will invite meaning and sense-making into an organisation.
  2. Setting clear goals – In an environment where change is constant, organisations should focus on setting challenging and specific development goals (learning new skills) rather than performance goals (ability demonstration). Employees with learning goals have a higher need for achievement.  They will seize opportunities to change because they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, task interested, agreeable and conscientiousness.
  3. Supervisory supportIt seems that the monitoring of performance against a goal rather than setting the goal itself is the key to motivation and transformation. Holding employees to account through public progress-monitoring has a moderate to strong effect on performance.  Supervisors who demonstrate that they value an employee’s contribution and that they care about their well-being can create a psychologically safe environment for feedback .  Supervisors also need to help employees feel they have control over their work.  This will reduce the chance of employee burnout and increase their satisfaction.
  4. Trust in leadership – Trust is about making ourselves vulnerable – putting your fate in someone else’s hands. This is potentially critical for change management as employees are led into the unknown by their organisation.  Employees put their trust in leaders who they feel have the ability, benevolence and integrity to create a positive outcome.  Reactions to a change process are likely to be favourable if the process is perceived to be fair.  This procedural justice (a component of organizational justice) is highly correlated to attitudes about work and behaviour.  Specifically, procedural justice leads to higher levels of change acceptance particularly after an organizational downsizing.

Making change ‘business-as-usual’

Supervisory support is the tipping point between the success and failure of a change initiative.  It is the difference between change being seen as a burden or an opportunity to develop.

Employees are more positive towards change when they can see how their small isolated change fits within the context of an overall strategic narrative.

If leaders create an atmosphere of trust and fairness it not only builds change capability and performance but creates a psychologically safe environment where employees can be themselves and can experiment.

So, sustaining and embedding change needs an atmosphere of supervisory support and trust in leadership.  But this must be underpinned by organisational processes and structures.  The most critical is Employee Performance Management (EPM).  This process is where psychological contracts are made (and broken).  It is where goals are set, behaviours are aligned and development is determined.

The Employee Performance Management process  should be a meaning maker, culture monitor and value deliverer – a singularity of change.  It is where the “grace”, “magic”, and “a miracles” of change should happen.

So maybe the first step in understanding our readiness to change is to look at our EPM.  Because if the goals, behaviours and learning opportunities of a change initiative are embedded in the EPM then change just becomes ‘business-as-usual’.

One Reply to “How to Challenge Change Management Assumptions”

  1. Yes indeed. What’s being said is that a company already being managed properly is more likely to be successful in change, especially if it’s a sensible change communicated appropriately at all levels.

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