Successful Organization Change Begins with Mindset

“Successful Organization Change Begins with Mindset” was originally published by HR People & Strategy in July 2018.

Transformational change starts in the mind. One of the most critical roles leaders play in any change management situation is to build a success mindset throughout the organization.

This can be more challenging than it sounds, because change involves taking people out of their comfort zones – the things they are good at – pushing them to do things differently. People tend to like things to be predictable; it makes us feel safe and secure and doesn’t require us to think too hard. There is actually a good evolutionary reason for this preference: the habits of clinging to tried and true behaviors and staying within perceived safety zones keeps living organisms from taking unnecessary risks that could endanger their well-being.

However, as we all know, we live in a dynamically changing world. Sometimes we do need to change in order to survive and thrive. In a primal setting, the willingness to undertake change usually requires a catalyst—such as hunger or fear—that is strong enough to propel the organism to action. In our modern lives where these primal drives are less overtly present, we can sometimes overcome inertia through sheer mental fortitude, but it doesn’t come easily. For instance, every spring I dread the day my wife tells me it’s time to do the yard work. The thought of getting up and cleaning out the flower beds is far less attractive than sitting in front of the TV or even heading to the office.

So when plans for change are announced in an organization, it often creates conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there is the buzz and excitement surrounding the concept. On the other is a sense of impending doom as people nervously ask themselves (and, behind closed doors, to each other) “Will I have a job next year?” “How long will this take and how many more hours will I have to put in?” “Do I have what it takes to learn these new things?” and “Seriously? Will this really work?”

Refocus the Mindset on Results

These feelings are actually legitimate. Any change to the status quo will bring about resistance, especially when work is required to make the change. And this is where the leader’s role becomes so important. It is the leader’s job to anticipate in advance that these feelings and emotions will be present (even if they are not expressed out loud), and to consciously create an environment that not only alleviates the fears, but channels that nervous energy in a more positive direction. Changing the mindset first thus paves the way for positive change to take place in the organization.

While getting people to view change as positive may seem like a difficult task, it is really not. Focus is the key. Without sound leadership, people’s minds tend to focus on the change itself, and therefore on uncertainty, confusion, and potential negative outcome. By refocusing the mindset on the work to be done, a leader can help an organization shift from a reactive to a proactive state of mind.

I do this in my personal life each year by remembering what happened the year we decided we were too busy to deal with the yard in the spring. Reminding myself how much more enjoyment we experience throughout the season when we start with a spruced up yard rather than fighting to stay on top of weeds and tall grass all summer long makes it much easier to pick up that rake and spade.

Shifting to a New Perception of Change

When organization change is viewed in judgmental terms—difficult, complex, or threatening—it tends to feed emotional reactions that can sabotage morale and interfere with progress. Even positive judgements—“this will be easy, great for the company, etc.”—can backfire; if things don’t go as planned it is easy for the resulting positive emotions to flip-flop and turn negative.

A better approach is to simply acknowledge that this is just work that needs to be done for the organization to thrive. In fact, it can be helpful to frame organization change as necessary, ongoing maintenance work. That way, rather than organizational change being seen as a disruptive event, it simply becomes “the way we do things”—and can even become a point of pride as a commitment to ongoing excellence and improvement. Now, that’s a comfort zone worth staying in.

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