Problems Managing Change Management

We all resist change, and for good reason. We are habit based animals. Anytime you want to change a process, you have to eliminate the old habit and create a new one. And that’s REALLY hard to do because eliminating old habits, even habits you want to stop, causes an extinction burst.

We do this as individuals – for instance, anyone trying to quit smoking or stop eating ice cream while watching TV has withdrawals and fights it even if they want to change.  Magnify that resistance by however many people you have in a group and you can see what change managers are up against.

The key to being successful is to understand how changes in behaviors occur.

What you need to know is how the old behaviors are unlearned so that new behaviors can take their place. To cause unlearning the old behavior has to no longer work or be rewarded. After this happens people will resist and try to get the old way back. This is called an extinction burst. If they continue to not get the old way to work, they will eventually give up and start learning the new process.

Most organizations attempt change but fail to spend any time or energy on the unlearning of old behaviors and then are surprised when they meet resistance. The resistance is predicted to happen. It’s instinctual. It’s not people being difficult. It’s people being normal humans.

A good change process will take into account the need to cycle through an extinction burst as the old behavior is unlearned. Both the learning of the new behavior and the unlearning of the old behavior have to have equal attention.

One way that organizations can manage change is to understand that the level of resistance is a function of time and of frequency of reinforcement.  Some people will resist less and others more. It is possible to take advantage of these variable levels of resistance to roll out changes to groups least likely to resist. For instance the newer employees are less likely to resist as the habits are less ingrained. By taking a staggered approach with a group most likely to change we can prove the concept as working before rolling it out to other departments.

Another way for organizations to manage change is to understand that habit formation takes repetition over about 45 days. This means that employees need to be reminded daily and encouraged daily and checked up on daily for about 45 days before the new process becomes a habit. This is especially important IF the old way of doing things still works, because if it does, employees will train on the new way and quickly revert to the old way if they aren’t watched and monitored.

Again, this resistance is normal. There is nothing wrong with the staff. Habits are really hard to break. It’s like telling an elephant who is used to going on a certain path to take a different path and then being surprised when it goes the way it has always gone. You have to retrain elephants and staff and that requires patience and consistency over time until the new behavior pattern is established and habitualized.

To learn more about how to manage the behavioral extinction process consider taking Why is Change so Hard at Humanist Learning Systems: 

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