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From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles

  • From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles

Most of us have read the statistic that 50 to 85 percent of change initiatives fail.

It is often said initiatives fail because people resist change. Blaming resistance just might be a bit too easy—resistance is a form of engagement, albeit sometimes a negative one.

An employee who is engaged enough with a change to resist it could become a resource. From her viewpoint, she might be able to see issues with the initiative or its implementation, which can be addressed and thereby strengthen the change. Or, he might just have misperceptions of the expectations under the new way of doing things. If so, he is unlikely to be alone. Correcting such misperceptions early can save a great deal of grief later on.

Disengagement is a bigger problem than resistance. When more than half of initiatives fail, how much sense does it make to jump on the bandwagon early? If the change gains momentum, then there will be time later to get on board. Unfortunately, when the next big change is announced the rational approach for an employee—who has seen many changes come and go in the past, and already has a full plate with his or her day job—is to ignore it. Odds are that it will be gone in a few months. Truth be told, when the failure rate is high, the logical, rational position upon hearing about the next big change initiative is simply apathy.

From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles

Unfortunately, it is a vicious cycle:

High failure rate for change initiates leads to apathy about new initiatives. In turn, apathy increases the likelihood that a change initiative will fail. Nobody can get inside people’s heads to break down apathy. Thus the only leverage point to break this cycle is to reduce the failure rate. When employees believe an initiative is going to “stick,” there is an incentive to get engaged and support it, thus reducing apathy and fostering success. This turns a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle: more success lead to more engagement, which in turn, leads to even more successes.

There are two important dimensions needed to make sure a change sticks:

1.) Leveraging the enthusiasm of employees who understand the value that the change can offer, and

2.) Demonstrating management commitment to it. Learning about a change from a colleague is more powerful than hearing about it in a big meeting replete with trinkets emblazoned with the change logo. When a colleague advocates for a change, he or she can answer questions, clarify confusion, and most importantly relate their own experience.

Employee advocates are important, but only if they are backed by an environment that supports the change. This means change leaders make the case for the change clear, employees have the tools and training to do their jobs under the new regime, and successes that move the change forward are rewarded and recognized.

Clear leadership, which provides the tools and rewards for successful implementation, supports employee advocates and can break the vicious cycle. Seeing the failure rate go down can be the leverage point that reduces apathy and encourages employees to engage with a change and help ensure its success. The goal of good change leadership is to make sure that getting on board and advocating for the change is the rational position of employees.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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