Best Practices

Change Hurts—But it Won’t Kill You

By Richard Willing
Published: Fall 2009

James Bailey, Ave Tucker Professorial Fellow of Leadership and chair of the management department at the School of Business, and former GWSB doctoral student Jonathan Raelin, now of Loyola College in Maryland, have a new take on “change.” They argue that to be fully understood, reactions to change must be examined as reactions to loss. Their case draws on classic management literature and research in psychology and the biological sciences.


Q: Change is a perennial topic in the study of organizations. Does the study of change need changing?

A: That would be a fair conclusion. The literature indicates that more than 50 percent of organizational change efforts fail. The literature also makes an a priori conclusion that employees react to change itself. We think that’s the source of the problem. We challenge that conclusion.

Q: But let’s say a major change is forced on an organization, like restructuring or a new core mission. And it causes massive unhappiness. What beyond change are employees reacting to?

A: Studies of change typically miss the point—and that’s that people don’t really resist change, they resist the loss that change represents. And that’s true whether the change is a “good” change, like a promotion, or a change that is viewed as a negative, like a transfer to a job you don’t really want or, on the larger scale, a basic change in the corporate culture.

Q: Why?

A: Because all change really is about loss. It’s the loss of familiarity, a loss of common perceptions or mutual understanding, a loss in the way we are measured or measure ourselves. Human systems favor sameness. Familiarity is an incredibly powerful draw. “Familiar” trumps “better” every time.

Q: How do we know that?

A: Neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology. These are not familiar subjects to readers of business reviews, but maybe they should be. It’s all there in our history as a species— continuity equals safety and survivability. That’s where our analysis begins.

Q: How does that play out in practice?

A: Look at employees in an organization. We argue that individuals set up “existential buffers” to provide stability, continuity and fairness. They’re a way of making sense of events that impact the organization and the individual. Buffers make sense of the events of daily life—of forming and maintaining identity, if you will. And they all aim at deflecting change efforts that threaten to alter the familiar routine.

Q: What’s an example of an existential buffer?

A: The best way to think of it is as a defense mechanism. It can be something that gives consistency to operations. How do I access this data? Or it can be a culture buffer, by which we see ourselves as part of something bigger than who we are as individuals. Navy SEALs or the nation of France, for instance.

Q: Why does this happen?

A: It links back to what’s called “Terror Management Theory.” That’s the idea that the human mind organizes itself and structures experience with one deep psychological goal: to keep from focusing on our own fragility and ultimate demise.

Q: So resistance to change is really a proxy for fear of death?

A: Everything we do as humans is an effort in one way or another to stave off our own death. Death is the ultimate change, the ultimate loss. That is a little dark, maybe, but there you have it.

Q: Wow. So if you’re interested in managing change in your organization, and you’re a disciple of Bailey and Raelin, how do you work with that grim fact?

A: If you can acknowledge it, you are off to a good start. Organizations, and most scholarship for that matter, tend to gloss over the deep stuff. But you must lay that out first. The goal is to identify the specific cause of the resistance to change and to take it from there. It’s important to remember that the content of the change initiative is less important than the psychological buffer it is colliding with.

Q: How does someone responsible for carrying out change in an organization identify those buffers?

A: We’ve developed a 3x3 typology by which the practitioner can track the impact of organizational change and the individual adjustment process. It breaks down change into initiatives that alter operational procedures, or how performance is measured, or basic beliefs and values. Each type of change punctures a corresponding buffer—consistency, standards, justice or culture.

Q: What about the impact on the individual?

A: The individual is key. This breaking through the buffers forces an adjustment process around sense making, competency and identity—an individual’s key capabilities. Our construct is a useful lens to view how people typically resist organizational change. By helping them understand individual reactions—the common denominator of loss—we think we’ve provided practitioners with a unique and useful tool for leading people through delicate transformations.

Q: What does a practitioner do with all this?

A: If I understand the type of change that is happening, the area it is impacting and the competencies that are going to be compromised, then I can work with that. For instance, if the main capability that is compromised is the ability to make sense of things, as a leader I need to step up to the plate to help make sense of everyday activities. For another kind of change, it might be additional praise or more frequent performance appraisals or an extra pat on the back.

Q: How is your work being received?

A: The academic journals are pushing back. They are saying, in effect: “This is too macabre.” But everything we’ve developed is derived in one way or another from the literature. What’s unique is pulling it all together to make a practical point about change.

Q: What is your message back?

A: That a good change leader has to be a good psychologist. And that you ignore the fundamental facts about change at your own peril.