The Psychological Pitfalls of Transformational Change


If you want your business to prosper long-term, history (and evolution) have taught us that you must (at critical points in time) transform in order to survive or risk wasting away into the lowly dust that the newer, more adept empires will build themselves upon.

In order to transform, by definition, your business must “make a thorough or dramatic change.” But dramatic changes require people to make them. People, however, are instinctively afraid of change, especially if they view it as a threat (at least according to the NeuroLeadership Institute). Such as a big, unknowable change at the place that cuts the paycheck they use to pay their mortgage and feed their family. And not hyperbolically afraid, where “afraid” really means “slightly uncomfortable” or “lazy,” but like being dipped in a tub of blood and guts and lowered head first into a pool of great white sharks during feeding time afraid…

Okay, maybe not THAT afraid, but certainly a level of afraid that creates those neurological fight-or-flight, adrenaline-pumping responses that you may experience in life-threatening situations (albeit not nearly as intensely). And though the efficacy of the findings from the NeuroLeadership Institute, and others attempting to use neuroscience to explain various business phenomena, have been questioned by some, it’s certainly hard to ignore the ideas when they are so omnipresent and personally relatable. Most of us can think of at least one situation where an important change was dumped on us last minute, inciting a mini panic attack. Most of us also know people who resist making changes we’ve suggested, even when accepting those changes would clearly be in their best interest (like when my wife suggests I stop buying so many Hawaiian shirts).

On top of all the various business media outlets expounding on our neurological fear of change, there’s also that hotly contested, and oft-quoted statistic that “70% of all transformations fail.” Yet another arrow in the quiver of those who hate change. And while the exact percentage of failure is debatable, at least we can all agree that more transformation efforts than people would like to see fail, do. There are certainly no studies arguing that 100% of transformations are successful.

So, the question is, how DO you make your transformation successful? How do you make change that sticks? My colleague Lauren Malik has a few suggestions (six to be exact) from her 2017 blog, “Six Factors for Making Change Stick,” which I definitely recommend you check out.

On top of that though, here are a few additional thoughts on why transformational change is difficult from a psychological perspective, and how to ease these psychic affronts:

Change is Scary

“When change occurs and the brain receives new incoming stimuli that conflict with existing mental maps, the brain’s natural error detection system turns on. Regions of the brain that are connected to its emotional center (the Amygdala) are activated and drain limited mental resources from the area of the brain associated with rational thought (the Prefrontal Cortex). As a result, change causes us to act more emotionally and impulsively and not rationally.” – Forbes

“Humans cannot think creatively, work well with others, or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert.” – David Rock, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute

It goes without saying that change is scary. Okay, maybe not all change. If I found out my rental car was upgraded last minute from the Ford Pinto I reserved to a Tesla Roadster at no extra cost, the only fear I’d have is the fear of losing my driver’s license as a result of getting too many speeding tickets.

However, change that we are unsure of, or that requires some heavy lifting, can trigger spikes of fear in our minds. As Dr. Britt Andreatta explains in her book, “Wired to Resist: The Brain Science of Why Change Fails and a New Model for Driving Success” the Amygdala, Basal Ganglia, Entorhinal Cortex, and Habenula (various parts of the Jell-O in our skulls) all play a key role in why we are wired to resist change through fear.

Apparently, it all comes down to remnants of our old school survival instincts. These inclinations cause our brains to be wary of any changes in our environment being that they could potentially lead to our demise. So, even though your transformation effort may not consist of letting hungry tigers and errant lightning bolts indiscriminately roam your office, you should still be empathetic to the fact that your people may be instinctively resistant to the transformational changes you are trying to implement.

Just acknowledging that change is scary, that it’s natural to be apprehensive, and creating an open dialogue to that fact, can go a long way to easing some of these tensions.


Learning Is Hard

If your organization is implementing a big change, then the people going through that change are going to have to learn something new: a new process, a new technology, a new organizational structure, a new way to pretend to be working while they secretly look at pictures of sloths, etc. And, learning ain’t easy:

“…even mildly stressful intellectual challenges change our emotional states and behaviors, even if they do not profoundly alter brain metabolism.” – Scientific American

And, new research is showing that a person’s ability to learn is heavily dependent on the flexibility of that individual’s neural networks, which can be affected by mood. So, if your employees are already in a fearful mood as a result of these new changes, their brain may be even less capable of processing and learning the new information associated with those changes.

Another aspect of learning that may affect people’s moods is time:

“The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.” – Interview of Neuroscientist David Eagleman in the New Yorker

So, when your employees are first learning new changes, it takes more focus, therefore the brain is more actively engaged, and time seems to pass more slowly. And, if your people feel like their work days are longer (even if they aren’t), it will affect their mood, which again will affect their ability to learn, ultimately slowing down your change process.

But there is hope. A steady and measured approach to learning will eventually get your people into a groove, and what was once new and scary will slowly become familiar and comfortable. Try expanding your method of change management away from a simple, one-and-done training session to a series of incremental training workshops that tackle each new process individually within a well-organized timeline that has regular feedback loops and lots of communication built-in.

Having a well-designed, one-step-at-a-time, immersive type training program that not only gathers, but also implements feedback, will help ease your employees into the new normal and will help combat the difficulties of learning something new. Add some mindful meditation to that training program and now you’re cooking with nuclear energy!


People Fear the Unknown

“…researchers found that those people who knew they were getting a shock but didn’t know if it would be mild or intense exhibited more fear than those people who knew for certain they were going to receive a more intense shock.” – Fast Company article referencing an American Psychological Association study

As the study referenced above (and many others) proves, humans are more capable of handling fears, pressures, and challenges when they know what they’re getting into. If your transformation is not well communicated or understood, then your employees are in for an intense shock.

Communicating clearly and frequently are key. Make the unknown known by answering questions like: What is changing? What is NOT changing? Why are we doing this change? What are the benefits/objectives we are trying to meet? How will everyone be impacted?

You don’t have to have everything figured out to introduce change, but there is a balance. Knowing too little can cause more disruptions than benefits but waiting too long to communicate anything can lead to rumors that will result in an uphill battle when you finally do decide to communicate.


Communication Should Be Multifaceted

 “Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10 percent of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65 percent.” – From the book “Brain Rules” as written about in The Week

“…the best wine tasters in the world have been known to describe a dyed white wine as a red.” – Buffer referencing the 2001 Frédéric Brochet study

Vision is one of our most important senses, so if you want to help your people avoid their fear of the unknown, you need a multifaceted, inclusive approach to communicating your transformation through speech, writing, behavior, AND visuals. And this is not a simple task. How you communicate your transformation is just as important as the transformation itself. It’s one of the cornerstones that your transformation will be built off of, so it needs to be done well. Gamification, visualization, and manifestation are all great facets to add to your communication approach.

 “Create a vision for the future, maximize face-to-face communication and reiterate everything at least 10 times. Don’t just send out an email announcement—have a dialogue.” – Interview of Dr. Rachel Cotter Davis, Ph.D. in Laserfiche


People Don’t Like to Feel Powerless

“In 1977, a well-known study of nursing homes by Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer found that residents who were given more control over decision making lived longer and healthier lives than residents in a control group who had everything selected for them. The choices themselves were insignificant; it was the perception of autonomy that mattered.” – From “Managing with the Brain in Mind” by David Rock

“Experiments with both humans and animals indicate that the mere illusion of control significantly improves performance in a variety of situations.” – American Scientist

When people have control, or at least the perception of control, over their environment and their lives, there is an improvement in their attitudes and performance. Even though you may have a very structured transformation initiative planned out for your organization, anything you can do to help your people feel like they have some sense of input and control will do wonders to improve their outlook.

Whether it’s frequent town halls, one-on-one feedback sessions, suggestion boxes, or creating an internal change coalition that includes some of the people who are most likely to resist the transformation, giving people some semblance of having their hand on the wheel will go a long way to making sure they don’t careen off the road.

Negativity Breeds Negativity

“The brain has five times the number of negative neural networks than it does positive ones. This is important for survival reasons. Dr. Evian Gordon defines the “negativity bias” as “the phenomenon by which humans pay more attention and give more weight to negative rather than positive experience or other kinds of information”.” – Forbes

Our brains are wired to be more negative (most of us anyway), which only enhances our fear of change. When your people see a transformation coming, it’s likely they are going to have a negative perception of it right off the bat. This is another reason why a multifaceted communication approach, and giving people elements of control, are so important.

This tendency to skew negative is a natural reaction, so keep that in mind as you think about how you communicate change. The more you do to counter the tendency for people to see your transformation in a negative light, the brighter your team will shine in the process.


Fear Itself Is NOT a Motivator

You may be thinking, “If fear can prevent people from wanting to change, maybe I can use it to motivate them instead?” But fear is not a good motivator, especially if you want to create lasting change. Because not even the fear of death will motivate some people to make life-saving changes:

“But many patients could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery — not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them — by switching to healthier lifestyles. Yet very few do. “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Miller said.”

“So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer… “Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear,” he says.”

“Even when leaders have reframed the issues brilliantly, it’s still vital to give people the multifaceted support they need. That’s a big reason why 90% of heart patients can’t change their lifestyles but 77% of Ornish’s patients could — because he buttressed them with weekly support groups with other patients, as well as attention from dieticians, psychologists, nurses, and yoga and meditation instructors.” – Fast Company

 As Dr. Dean Ornish describes in the article above, joy is the true motivator. Find the joyful drivers behind your transformation, provide the proper support to encourage that joy, and you’ll find your people more eager to follow.


Change Cannot Be Rushed

Transformational changes are important, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing them, so it’s easy to get ahead of yourself and try to approach change the way competitive eaters approach a pie eating contest:

Too much change too quickly can leave your employees feeling like they just downed a whole bottle of castor oil and a raw egg followed by five blueberry pies. As Thought Ensemble alumnus Erika Kessenger put in in her 2016 Blog, “How Much Change is Too Much?”:

“Change saturation occurs when the level of change within an organization (change disruption) is greater than the organization can handle (change capacity). This typically happens when an organization is executing on a portfolio of projects with a large number of overlapping stakeholders (often without a clear connection to a strong vision). Nearly 3/4 of the participants in Prosci’s 2012 Best Practices in Change Management report indicated that their organization was nearing, at, or past the point of change saturation.”

To get ahead of the possibility that your organization is taking on too much change, consider running your team through a change saturation exercise. When properly run, this will allow you to see who will be impacted the most from your planned changes. You can then use the results to help prioritize your current and future transformation efforts.

And though there are some situations where radical, innovative, fast-paced change is effective, large-scale business transformations tend to benefit more from a one-step-at-a-time style approach:

“All changes, even positive ones, are scary. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.” – Robert Maurer from his book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”

 So, take your time, and just as you might keep your eye on your gas gauge during a cross-country road trip, keep your eye on your transformation efforts, your employees, and whether or not they’re all running on fumes.


Success Breeds Success

“In all scenarios, individuals given early support were 9 percent to 31 percent more likely than individuals who did not receive early support to receive follow-up support from other individuals.” – Psychology Today

When people are fearful of change and stressed by all the new things they must learn, finding, creating, and communicating early wins will help bolster confidence and give them the energy to soldier on. Try to create easily achievable milestones, track and share positive KPIs, or gamify the transformation so users get badges or prizes for achieving goals. Let your team know they are succeeding and more success will follow:

“So how do the best leaders and managers mitigate change battle fatigue, keep fear at bay and keep the team engaged and energized? By doing two things: identifying and celebrating early successes and creating cultural experiences that support the vision and keep the change train on track.” – Forbes


In summary, change is a challenge, especially transformational change. Making sure you manage all the potential psychological pitfalls is crucial to ensuring your transformation sticks long-term. Because you can’t transform without change, and you can’t change without people, and people are psychologically averse to change, you can’t have a successful transformation without addressing people’s psychology.

Another good resource to check out if you are interested in how to manage your organization through transformational change, is another blog from my colleague Lauren Malik, “Selecting the Right Size Backpack for Your Change Initiative” in which she discusses selecting the right change model based on the type of change you are trying to achieve. Definitely worth a read!


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