Growth and Improvement
Growth and improvement, while desirable, are difficult outcomes to achieve and even more difficult to sustain. Organizations throughout the U.S. spend billions of dollars each year to move beyond plateaus in operational performance. On average, change initiatives succeed less than 30% of the time.
At its most fundamental state, improvement is a by-product of change. It is the result of actions that go above and beyond those responsible for the performance outcomes deemed insufficient or unsatisfactory. Improvement requires moving beyond status quo.
The problem with change is that it doesn’t always involve processes that can be redesigned or modified into existence without the implementation or assistance of key stakeholders. Performance outcomes are often the result of actions and behaviors and are human-centric. For change initiatives to succeed, they must be accepted by and adopted to practice by the workforce.
Status quo bias and the human tendency to resist change
As humans, we don’t like change. We like routine and prefer to keep things the way they are. This tendency is deeply engrained into our way of thinking, so much so that we have a hard-wired resistance to change. For most, change is internalized as involving loss, which can have long-lasting implications impacting how we feel about it – even years after the change takes place.
This tendency in human behavior is known as the status quo bias. How impactful is it in real life? Here’s one example: around the world, countries approach organ donation in two fundamentally different ways. In the U.S. and Germany, organ donors must opt into the program. In other countries, such as Spain and Belgium, donors must opt out of the program. Organ donation rates in countries with “opt in” practices average 15% or less. Those with “opt out” practices have organ donation rates in excess of 90%. The difference between the two can be explained primarily through the status quo bias. The rates primarily reflect inaction as opposed to action. It also confirms our tendency to leave things as they are.
Making change happen on the front line
The importance of this topic is of growing relevance. While change is difficult to achieve, it’s even more difficult to bring about in others. As a supervisor, a great deal of your overall performance is a direct reflection of how effectively you communicate. Knowing about the status quo bias, and equally as important, having some communication tools at your disposal when the need arises, will help you overcome inevitable barriers you will face when trying make change happen.
The key to getting critical messaging through to employees is repetition. In any given day, most people are inundated with demands, each competing for time and attention. Some messaging is important, but most isn’t. With cell phones, computers, and continuous news feeds all around, we find ourselves overwhelmed with incoming information. The likelihood of something new getting lost isn’t just possible – it’s highly probable.
Some experts suggest information may need to be repeated as much as 20 times before the message is fully internalized and understood. It may take even more effort to influence subsequent actions and behaviors. The key takeaway is that change isn’t easy. The communication effort to make change happen is formidable and requires a marathon-oriented mindset. Knowing in advance what you’re facing provides you with a clear advantage in overcoming the challenges you will likely face.
When planning communication strategies, another important consideration involves the various means by which you can reach employees. As a rule of thumb, efficiency and effectiveness often have an inverse relationship; the quickest and easiest approach is seldom the best.
To get the most from your efforts, try to personalize communications and deliver talking points in person. When and where possible, engage employees one-on-one or in small groups. Ask probing questions to confirm understanding and provide an opportunity for feedback. While input received may reflect frustration and anxiety, it also provides an outlet and sounding board – an important part of the transition process.
Driving change is about getting results. It’s about transitioning yourself, your employees, and eventually your organization from a current to a desired future state. It takes time. It takes work.
The rate and pace of adoption by employees and key stakeholders is the final point of consideration. About one-third of your employees will see value in improvement initiatives and will quickly rally behind the effort. These employees are commonly referred to as early adopters. Treat them as ambassadors. Feed them with information and take every opportunity to acknowledge their support to meaningful change.
The next tier of employees is broadly referred to as the majority, accounting for 60-70% of the workforce. You will have to do the heavy lifting to get them on board. The key elements in doing so are time, distance, and repetition.
The final tier is the laggards. This group is deeply anchored in the past and for any number of reasons is opposed to change. The likelihood of you reaching them or getting them on board is remote. Those capable of influencing this group are most likely well-respected peers. Don’t take it personal, just recognize everyone has a role in making needed transitions. Interdependency, relying on one another, is a hallmark of strength – not weakness.
The role you play as a supervisor or manager is important and will be critical in addressing the challenges involving the emerging workplace. Transitions needed to meet changing customer demands and to respond to shifting economic forces will reach unprecedented levels within the next decade. No one within the organization is better positioned to make it happen than those on the front line and in the trenches. Embrace the opportunity and develop the communication skills needed to lead your team through the changes ahead.