New Data Shows That Leaders Overestimate How Much Their Employees Want To Change
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
The key to successful change management is getting people to let go of the status quo and reach for something bigger and better. If you ask top executives, this should be pretty easy because right now only 37% of them say that people generally like to remain in the status quo. So they’ve got a fairly rosy view of the extent to which people will leave their existing condition and embrace change. Unfortunately, when we ask frontline employees, they see things differently, with 45% saying that people generally like to remain in the status quo.
Last week 2,163 professionals, managers and executives took a 10-question assessment called “What’s Your Style of Change Management?” One of the questions asked respondents to choose between two statements:
- People generally like to remain in the status quo.
- People generally want to reach for something bigger and better.
When the results were broken out by current position, here’s what was found:
One of the first things you probably notice is that folks on the frontlines (i.e. frontline professionals) are much more evenly split between the status quo and reaching for something bigger than are top executives. In other words, the top executives are much more optimistic about whether employees want to leave the status quo than are the employees themselves.
When you consider how most change management efforts work, this makes sense. Usually the top executives initiate a change, maybe with input from vice presidents, and then it goes down to directors and managers. Finally, almost as an afterthought, the frontline employees are asked to actually implement some changes.
Given how infrequently employees are asked to participate in originating a change effort, it makes sense that they would evidence more pessimism about leaving the status quo than top executives. And let’s be honest; the most fun part of any change management effort is developing the idea (which executives get to do). And the most arduous component is the implementation (which employees are required to do).
This contrast is even more striking when I present the data in a different format:
This chart shows us only the percentage that believes that people generally like to remain in the status quo. And I’ve added a trendline so you can see that the further down in the hierarchy we go, the more resistance to change we see. While the gap between 37% for top executives and 45% for frontline professionals might not seem like much, that 8% difference can absolutely make the difference between success and failure. Not only is that gap statistically significant (p<.05), but it’s probable that the upcoming presidential election will be decided by much less than 8 percentage points.
I would encourage every CEO to tape this chart to their wall as a reminder of just where their change effort will fall apart. It’s not going to break down in the boardroom or the executive suite; it’s the frontlines where the battle for hearts and minds will really be won or lost. And that spotlights an important question for executives; “where should you spend your time?”
The data is pretty clear that frontline employees are going to be less excited by change than top executives. In fact, every role except managers is significantly less excited about change than the top executives. And yet, which role do executives converse with most frequently? Other executives!
Top executives are the least populous, least customer facing, and least responsible for executing change. As you head down the organizational hierarchy, each subsequent level becomes more populous, customer facing and responsible for executing change. That simple fact suggests that if executives are concerned about the success of their change management efforts, they should put considerably more time into persuading the people most likely to resist their efforts.
Many, if not most, change efforts will fail, often with dire consequences for executives. In fact, a few years ago I conducted a study that found mismanaging change was the top reason why CEO’s get fired. And this data shows why.
If you’re a top-level executive, a simple memo announcing the change is not going to be enough to convince your frontline employees to leave the status quo. Remember, 45% of employees believe that people generally prefer to remain in the status quo. And that number may be low; historically the people who take my assessments are more motivated than the average person so the actual situation could be worse than my data shows.
If you’re going to persuade employees to leave the status quo and reach for something bigger, you need to clearly explain three things: why this change is necessary, where this change will take us and how we’re going to get from here to there. The “why” creates a need and urgency for change and stops people from eulogizing the past (“the way we used to do it was so much better”). The “where” provides positive forward direction that turns the anxiety of “why” into excitement. And the “how” gets people comfortable with the idea that they can be successful.
And again, one memo probably won’t cut it. You’ll need to invest as much effort convincing the frontlines as you did your fellow executives. And if you make that investment, while providing the why, where and how of change, you’ll persuade people to make the transition from where they are now (i.e. the status quo) to the bigger and better place you want them to go.