Whether it’s due to a restructuring, downsizing, rapid growth, new leadership, or market forces, change within an organization can be difficult. People, it seems, are often wired to respond to change as a threat, which can trigger many of our primal responses similar to being chased by a lion. Since running away and climbing up a tree are generally not considered good coping mechanisms in the context of the workplace, understanding how these fight or flight instincts can be avoided—and why necessary or well-intentioned change can trigger them in the first place—can be helpful to those responsible for shepherding change in an organization.
Change initiatives within a company, whatever the motivation or circumstance, generally take on one of three forms. The first is the kind of outcome-motivated change that does not require people to change the way that they work. Like removing perimeter services in order to focus on core competencies. The second type involves taking on new processes that align well with employees’ current mindsets, like a company already focused on efficiency onboarding a new project management platform. The third kind of initiative is the most complex and can be the most likely to cause tension and resistance. This type of change generally entails a cultural shift and requires employees to change the way they work, and the way they think, across the board. For example, an organization that has historically been reactive changing their service model to become proactive, or a manufacturer who has typically sold tangible products only to distributors deciding to change their model to include selling services directly to consumers.
A good example of a type of organizational change that falls somewhere between the second and third type, and for some people, could fall squarely under culture change is the increasing need for traditionally outbound sales oriented organizations to shift to a stronger marketing mindset. With changing customer journeys, lengthening sales cycles, and the decreasing effectiveness of traditional outbound sales tactics like cold calling, the need for marketing to provide demand generation and inbound lead generation tactics has grown, requiring, in the best case scenario, for sales and marketing to work more closely than ever before. So, why does such a seemingly logical alliance create such discord?
It boils down to some relatively simple psychology. Whenever an organization declares that it must make a change, employees are likely to be uncertain about their individual role in that change. To set any organizational change up for success, employees need to first believe that the role they play in it is important to its success and that the positive outcome of the change is worth them changing their behavior. Without this belief, employees may pay lip service to the idea of change, but will be slow to adopt behavioral changes that make it possible.