Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Seven Psychological Principles of Organizational Change – Guest Blog

by Karen Wilhelm of the Lean Reflections blog

Implementing new workplace programs (such as lean manufacturing, quality control, or safety procedures) can be challenging when met with the resistance of an established mindset. Our guest blogger examines the principles that champions of change need to consider before they act.

When change fails, it's often blamed on a culture of resistance, one where people won't accept new ideas. An effort to introduce a new safety system, apply lean manufacturing concepts to an old process, automate a line, or add new quality inspection methods can run aground. In a series on my Lean Reflections blog, "What is culture and why is it so hard to change?", I have been looking at some anthropological perspectives on culture and the change process.

Decades ago, experts from the United Nations struggled to introduce beneficial new technologies like mechanized agriculture or better public health practices to traditional cultural groups. In 1953, an elite team of social anthropologists led by Margaret Mead was asked to use their thousands of hours of first-hand observations and analysis of similar circumstances to shed some light on why cultures reject change for the better.

This team of social scientists reminded us that, for a group of people to accept a change, each individual makes a decision based on both emotional and rational reasons. They identified seven psychological principles that change agents should understand. Briefly, let's take a look at them.

  1. The psychology of the experts themselves affects the process. Change champions don't always see that their beliefs and attitudes are not universal or always right. When they encounter embedded—and learned—cultural traditions that seem to be irrational obstacles to improvement, they may expect that all they need to do is give a logical explanation of a better way. They can think that, once enlightened, the group will be enthusiastic about the new methods. They can forget that their own learned attitudes about their brand of improvement took some time to take hold in their minds. They can forget that the group they are attempting to change will need time too.

  2. A person's usual daily behavior and ways of relating to others are directed by beliefs and attitudes that serve some psychological function or provide some benefit. That purpose does not have to be practical or rational. A belief that maintains a comfort zone, predictability, and emotional safety is not going to be abandoned easily. Such a belief may be psychologically necessary to a person, rather than evidence of stubbornness, unwillingness to cooperate, or inability to learn.

  3. The expert must see change from the point of view of the individuals exposed to it. A job is part of a person's self-image. People take pride in their work. The expert's "better way" may result in a loss of face or damage to some aspect of a familiar culture. If people feel undermined or embarrassed, they will resist. If members of a traditional manufacturing culture, especially managers, perceive that new ideas mean they have been wrong throughout their careers, their belief in their own expertise is threatened. It can amount to a psychological attack. And because a culture is a system, changing any part of it can have unintended consequences. Pulling one thread may cause more unraveling than expected. To see the culture as a system and from the point of view of its members takes time for observation.

  4. Experts should think twice before trying to introduce a large-scale blueprint for widespread change. But why not, if all aspects of a system are interrelated? For one thing, when people have been through plenty of other failed far-reaching plans that produced painful consequences, their work culture can become immune to another pitch. A big, detailed plan sets the stage for failure because few things will turn out exactly as predicted. People will then feel disappointed or betrayed, or even secretly happy that the initiative is in trouble. A vision or goal is important, but proposing the path to the goal begins with the small steps. Employees have a lot of small, everyday struggles that make it hard to do their jobs. Helping them solve one problem can speak louder than a hundred promises. A small-scale pilot project is a foot in the door. When the change leader says, "Let's try this, and if it doesn't work, we can try something else or go back to the old way," it will lower the anxiety level considerably.

  5. A significant change in someone's life introduces some instability or disharmony, which produces emotional tension. Old behaviors are part of the person's sense of self. New situations require new behaviors. If people feel they don't have the right skills, for example, it threatens self-esteem and may cause worry about keeping their jobs. Even changing shifts or working in a reconfigured workcell will have a psychological effect that the change champion must be aware of.

  6. Frustration accompanies tension when old beliefs and concepts of personal worth are incompatible with new practices. Even minor frustrations can add up to more serious problems. If people start believing that they can't accomplish what is expected of them, change efforts can be derailed. While some tension can help people learn and grow, they need resources and support to become more at ease with the new.

  7. When frustration is persistent or intense, the physical and psychological health of some individuals may be impaired. The signs that someone may be struggling may take the form of anger, withdrawal, illness, or even sabotage. Distress affects a person's ability to learn, and can make it appear that he or she is simply unable or unwilling to learn new methods and concepts. These potential consequences, at greater or lesser degrees, make it important to identify and resolve frustrating conditions, behave with respect, recognize individual differences, and provide encouragement and support.

When change champions take time to understand the workplace culture and the people who will experience the change before introducing disruption, they can adapt their message for that specific group of people. More importantly, they can adapt themselves. Mutual understanding leads to trust.

Karen Wilhelm, has more than 25 years of experience in manufacturing. In addition to her blog, Lean Reflections, Karen is a contributor to the Gray blog and other online manufacturing publications. She can be reached at

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