Why change agents often fail (and what to do about it)

Posted by Bob Corlett on September 2, 2015

As you unleash new initiatives, the temptation is to bring in a "change agent," a leader who will shake things up and be a catalyst for change.

But doing so is not without its risks, as studies show that up to 70 percent of change initiatives fail.

Why does this happen? Because if you are new, it can be hard to influence the group.

As researcher Jeremy Dean points out, no matter how diplomatically a change agent introduces an idea, he or she will "commonly face increased negativity and outright rejection" from the groups they are attempting to change.

To put it another way, "Groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it." Jumping in and trying to make a splash with new ideas is a doomed strategy.

Dean outlined the 10 rules that govern groups. Among these are:

  • Group norms are very powerful. They change behavior in unexpected ways, and breed conformity.
  • People who do not "learn the ropes" are ostracized.
  • Leaders gain trust by first conforming to group norms, and then introducing change that others would willingly follow.

Sounds like a pretty slow process.

So what is a clever change agent to do?

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Topics: Hiring Managers