By Sondra Whitt
Did you know that happiness hurts change? When you think about it, it makes sense. If we’re happy or satisfied with something, why would we see a reason to change? People start diet and exercise programs because they’re unhappy with their current size or state of health. They seek a new job or relationship because they’ve become dissatisfied with their current one. Organizations launch into change efforts expecting to lower turn-over, raise morale, or to increase productivity and revenue. They implement changes in order to become more efficient in their processes, to be more team-oriented or purpose-driven. In other words, they’re unhappy with the current state of the organization.
However, Mark Murphy, in his Leadership IQ article How Happiness Hurts Change, cited a Harvard study revealing that a whopping 70% of change initiatives fail. When Murphy’s organization did further research to find out the cause, he found it to be “no sense of urgency.” He also found that there’s an inverse relationship between feeling good and wanting to change. When people are satisfied with the way things are, there is less desire to change. But when they’re dissatisfied, “you’ll have them asking you to lead them somewhere better.”
But, he cautions, to ensure successful change you’ll need at least 70% of your employees who are dissatisfied with the present state of affairs and believe things could be changed for the better. Otherwise you won’t have enough support for your change effort and once the feelings of dissatisfaction fade and people start feeling good again, “they’ll want to stay with what they have, even if what they have is only mediocre.” That’s why you have to push hard for the change — and keep pushing. “Without a sense of real dissatisfaction with the status quo, change is rarely welcome,” says Murphy. “It makes people feel overwhelmed or inundated, and they often misunderstand the causes or reasons for change. This makes them unwilling to cooperate with change efforts as needed. By contrast, if people don’t like the status quo, they’ll be clamoring for change.”
Why do leaders seem to forget this fact when trying to lead a change effort? According to Murphy’s research, it’s because most leaders are uncomfortable talking about the problems in their organization. They want to ignore the present unrest and dissatisfaction and talk instead about how great the future will be. Leaders want to choose a new direction, tell their people about it, and have everyone enthusiastically embrace it. Another reason change efforts fail is because people give up too soon. Change takes time; especially when so many people are involved. Think of all the different personalities and roles within an organization that have to work together to implement the change. It can be hard enough in a relationship between two people to admit a change needs to be made, look at options and then follow through with the solution. Now, multiply that by however many employees are in your organization!
So what’s the solution? Leaders need to ask a lot of questions while they’re taking a good, hard look at their organization. Find out why people are dissatisfied, explore the possible solutions, and discuss the opportunities change creates. Talk about their fears, make sure they’re really ready to make the change and make sure they know how they play an important role in it. Then do it. Nothing’s worse for morale than for a leader to pretend to explore a problem and seek a solution, only to do nothing about it or to start the process only to stop short of completion. The more someone has bought into and is a part of the change process, the more committed they’ll be and the more they’ll champion your cause. That’s especially important when that level of satisfaction is reached where it’s hard to continue doing the hard work of change.