Change is hard

Tech transformation requires employee buy-in. Here’s how to earn it.

change is hard

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Age of Experience issue of Workflow Quarterly.

When Manisha Arora was working in IT service management at Microsoft, her team faced a choice. The team badly needed a new ticketing system, says Arora, who is now a senior director on ServiceNow’s innovation team. Some wanted to build a new system in-house, even though this approach would be slow, costly, and not aligned with industry best practices. Arora and others advocated for the quicker, more cost-effective option of working with an outside vendor.

“There were a lot of people who were really, really entrenched in our existing processes,” she recalls. “We had to change hearts and minds.”

Arora’s manager had a solution: Bring in a team of experts to run process design workshops with the team. After the workshops, everyone on the team agreed they should source the new ticketing system from a vendor that aligned with industry best practices. Interestingly, the experts advanced the same arguments that Arora and her pro-vendor teammates had used to make their case. So why was the outcome different?

“When it comes to changing people’s minds, you have to find a carrot or a stick,” says Arora.

“At Microsoft, it was a carrot. The experts said that if we made this change, our industry peers would be more likely to hold us in high esteem.”

Why employees resist change

The practice of overseeing and enabling organizational change is known as change management. The challenge at the heart of change management is that people don’t like to change. When a company introduces a new technical or organizational approach, employees will default to resistance. “Humans have habits, and changing those habits is hard,” says Julia Martensen, a technology evangelist at ServiceNow.

Prior to working at ServiceNow, Martensen helped manage global supply chains for a German logistics company. About 10 years ago, Martensen traveled to a large warehouse in Miami to help implement a new inventory management system that required workers to switch from clipboards to mobile devices. While the workers understood the value of the change, they refused to adopt it.

Humans have habits, and changing those habits is hard.

They had been working the old way for years and weren’t convinced the change was worth the effort of learning something new. “They would even agree with me that it was quicker for them to complete their work on the mobile device,” says Martensen. Yet the workers still weren’t willing to embrace a change that benefited them.

Arora has seen this phenomenon play out many times during her decades-long IT career. When her managers introduced new digital tools or platforms for organizing and reporting on work, people often resisted. “Why would you change if you know you’re going to get a good performance review doing what you’ve always done?” says Arora. “Switching things up takes mental energy.”

Overcoming resistance

Employee resistance to change is still a major headache for executives responsible for digital transformation initiatives, according to a recent survey of 1,000 C-level executives worldwide conducted by ThoughtLab and ServiceNow. They uniformly identified this resistance as the main challenge to changing the status quo in their businesses. Yet when companies are able to deliver an improved employee experience, executives across industries report tangible benefits such as increased productivity and revenue.

In 1969, sociologist Paul R. Lawrence published a groundbreaking Harvard Business Review article that articulated a new approach to change management. While executives often thought of employee resistance to change as an obstacle to overcome, Lawrence encouraged leaders to view resistance as “a useful red flag.” Much like a human body sending out pain signals, the resistance doesn’t tell you exactly what’s wrong, but it does tell you there is a problem.

More than half a century later, Lawrence’s argument resonates with Cen “April” Yue, a professor of marketing, advertising, and communications at the University of Connecticut. Yue, whose research looks at how executives can orchestrate positive change in organizations, describes employee resistance as a cognitive or emotional distress signal. On a cognitive level, employees might resist because they don’t have the bandwidth to change. On an emotional level, they might feel too overwhelmed, stressed, or uncertain.

To sell employees on a new technology or direction, leaders should embrace transparent communication and empathy. “Leaders can influence outcomes by communicating frequently and effectively to employees,” Yue says. “Employees need to see that the leader knows what they’re going through.”

In his 1969 article, Lawrence argues that organizational change always has a technical and a social aspect. A change will not only impact the physical routine of the job, but also alter established relationships within an organization. Executives often overlook the social element when they try to help their employees adjust to a new way of working.

The role of incentives in change management

For example, when ServiceNow’s Martensen rolled out mobile devices to replace clipboards at her company’s warehouses, the method for logging new inventory changed—but so did the dynamic between employees. Workers were vehemently opposed to the new technology and insisted they could do their jobs better the old way.

That’s why managers need to check in regularly with their employees and ask them how they’re feeling during and after a change. At the global logistics company, Martensen had to find a balance between gathering feedback and advocating for change. On the one hand, she recorded how much time it took her workers to fill out a form on paper versus digitally. On the other hand, she was receptive when someone insisted that they had a better way of doing things. “Be firm but flexible,” says Martensen.

Do the new incentives make sense? Do the new tools and processes help you achieve your goals?

Arora agrees that gathering feedback is important, but cautions leaders to construct their questions so they get useful and productive answers. “I wouldn’t necessarily ask, ‘Do you like this change?’” says Arora. “I would ask, ‘Do the new incentives make sense? Do the new tools and processes help you achieve your goals?’”

A ServiceNow manager once asked Arora’s team to report on its daily objectives using a task board application rather than informal water cooler chats and in-person meetings. But nobody would do it. So the manager stopped holding live meetings and started using the task board app exclusively when conducting performance reviews. A new carrot (the chance to get a good performance review) and a new stick (being shut out of the team’s conversations) brought everybody into the fold.

In short, successful change management requires proper incentives. “Whenever there’s a change, managers and executives have to come in with new carrots and sticks because the old ones won’t work,” Arora says.

Changing for the better

Change management is not an end unto itself. When selling any significant new initiative to employees, leaders need to explain exactly how changing everyday work patterns will advance the company’s mission and values. This is particularly important during stressful events like the global pandemic. Regardless of incentives, employees won’t support a change if they can’t connect the project to something more meaningful than efficiency or modernization.

“Leaders should underscore how the change is just a different manifestation of the organization’s core values,” Yue says. “For employees, this sense of continuity is very important.”