Managing Change: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

Out of Mind

Throughout my career as a C-level executive, management troubleshooter, and organization consultant, I have been around the change/transformation process a number of times. 

For me, some of these “change programs” have been more successful and enjoyable than others. 

Observations on Change

To provide some valuable experiences to you in an effort to help you learn and grow, I humbly offer some observations and insights from my change agent experience.

“We are always at risk to leave our values in the attic when we fall in love with great looking new techniques.”  ~M.Weisborg 

We know there are many reasons that despite the hard work of smart and engaged people 70% of all change efforts fail. Below are a few (perhaps) lesser-known concepts from my experience that may help in understanding why change efforts with so much promise can end up making things worse and doing harm because they go wrong so often.

Hidden Reasons Why Change Programs Go Wrong

Functional Blindness

Author John Gardner once said:

“Most ailing organizations have developed a functional blindness to their own defects.  They are not suffering because they cannot resolve their problems, but because they cannot see their problems.” 

This has been my experience over the years in designing and executing change assignments.  This condition may come from self-deception.

Or it may just come from big egos.

It may come from a culture that is not psychologically safe so telling the truth is not the norm or from collusion and false agreement within the management system.  And, of course, leaders (big L and little l) make bad decisions.

Regardless, when some mix of these dynamics are at work, the ability to make informed and accurate judgments and decisions about change management is greatly diminished.

Psychological Inertia 

I learned this powerful dynamic from Albert Ellis one of the pioneering cognitive psychotherapists.  Since then others have added to the understanding of this concept.

“The essential learning here is that once an individual’s belief system is established and embedded, s/he may begin to question the ‘rightness’ of change initiatives if they do not conform to the individual’s beliefs about the best way to improve the system.”

Such that, when evidence supporting the needed change is presented, it is ignored and resisted until the company’s ability to gain the expected benefits of the change is lost.

Competing Commitments

 This idea comes from developmental psychology.  My reference is the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey.

What Kegen and Lahey discovered over many years of researching and studying resistance to change is:

“Having an open mind, or being pressured or coerced to change does not produce (authentic) change in an individual, but that most people have internal ‘competing commitments’ that inhibits their receptiveness and willingness to change.”

They also discovered that behind the competing commitment is a major assumption that creates an immunity to change.

For example, I am not opposed to the change, but I may have doubts, fears, etc. about future phases of the change that I may not be capable of controlling or able to deal with.  As such, my competing commitment driven by this assumption about future issues will cause me to resist despite my conscious desire to support the change.

Changing behavior requires self honesty and the willingness to invest in sincere disclosure and feedback.  Once the competing commitment is made visible and is worked through, we can overcome the immunity to change.

Personal Awareness Level

This is a theory I started to develop in Graduate School.  Fortunately, smarter people were working in the same direction.

“Perhaps the most powerful tool we have in being an effective agent for change is our presentation of self in executing our role in doing the work.” 

Our ability to bring our highest self to the cause we are supporting is determined, in large part, to our personal level of awareness.  This dynamic affects the range and depth of the impact we can make and our ability to make choices and use skillful means to increase our impact.

Negative Informal System Dynamics 

These are the silent, unspoken assumptions, processes, and behaviors operating in the informal system manifesting as negative group dynamics.

They work to disrupt and undermine the goals and objectives of specific organizational initiatives that are not perceived as congruent with the informal system.  Or, that threaten the cultural center of gravity that regulates what behaviors, values, relationships and actions are beneficial in preserving the wellbeing of the informal system members.

Adapting to Change

I have found it helpful to expect and understand the disruptive effects these hidden mental and emotional thoughts and feelings can have on most of our change agendas.  Even our best people are not immune and can disrupt our change efforts without really knowing why.

Our ability to adapt and respond effectively to a constantly changing and chaotic world is in fact both a mind and spirit issue.  By advancing our understanding of the hidden dynamics that may cause change to fail; we can develop new perspectives and a renewed courage to confront these situations, with a creative and innovative spirit.

This requires:

  • The Big L Leader model
  • Courageous use of self in execution
  • Deeper understanding of group dynamics
  • More effective interventions at all levels
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Inclusion in mobilizing the formal and informal systems in support of our vision, values, and purpose

Finally, our change initiatives must become integral in design to ensure inspired accountability, engaged support, and sustained commitment.

“The reason change is so hard is because everyone thinks it is about someone else.” ~D. Ramsey

Have you encountered any of these change dynamics? Did they change your design and execution plans? How do you know if the informal system will support planned change? Does your company recognize the wealth of diverse talents in their workforce? Does Change Management need an integral approach to insure success?


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Doug Ramsey is Managing Director at Designed Management, LLC
He delivers programs in Company Building, Profitable Growth,
Leadership Development, and Coaching

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8 responses to “Managing Change: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

  1. I used to think that people that resisted change were just lazy. Over the years I have come to some of the same conclusions as yourself Doug. People get comfortable in own skins and the enviroment they they have a stake in and they helped to shape; for better or for worse. That is hard to let go of.

    In a recent consulting engagement we set about to implement several new processes that we knew were not going to be easy. We built a team of 6 employee to handle the LEO project with us and before we started we had a 2-hour session about resistance to change and openly talked about why people get comfortable and the ramnifications. We then talked about their own fears and feelings about change and being the team leaders. We wrote them down on post it notes for then to keep. We then talked about how to overcome them. We put those on post it notes for them to keep. We placed the barriers of change for each person and their opposite in seperate envelopes. We place the negative envelopes in red fanny packs and the positive ones in green fanny packs and hung a coat rack just outside oue meeting room.

    During the two week engagement when they were outside the meeting room and back at their office or desk they wore the negative/red fanny packs. When c-oworkers commented “why are you wearing that” they had to explain what was in it. When they came into our meeting room they took off the red pack and put on the green one before they walked through the door. The change in energy was palatable.

    It allowed them all to acknowledge as a team what they were facing and explaining over and over to co-workers made them understand that they really had nothing to fear.

    Needless to say that during implementation of the new processes, they wore green fanny packs back in the workplace and explained how they used those things to overcome their “irrational” fear of change.

    Keep up the great work Doug!!


    • Hello John. Good to hear from you and thanks for reading my blog. I am glad some of my ideas make sense. I really like the work you are doing and the design you described. Very cool stuff. Too bad we didn’t have a chance to work more closely together as it would have been nice to have a kindred spirit close by. I hope all is well and thanks again for your comments. All the best. Doug


  2. Doug — It seems that the underlying problem is simple: people want to change the outputs, but don’t really want to (or can not) change the inputs. Another way of saying what you did in your last quote.


    • Very good point Scott. Part of the human condition, I suppose. But it does get messy. Thank you for reading my blog and for your comments. I hope all is well. Happy Holidays, Doug


  3. Always an interesting read, Doug. Our company is going through some growing pains right now. We are moving from a start-up, ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ company to one with a more structured and strategic approach that involves planning, consensus and the commitment implementing new processes. Our ability to grow and survive in a fiercely competitive space requires focus, commitment and the willingness to say “NO”. What I have seen is that most people get excited about change and seem genuinely interested in changing the culture. However, there are those who think that change is good for everyone else, but the rules and process don’t apply to them. There must be top down commitment to support change. It’s getting tougher and tougher to influence without authority. Seeing progress, but I can see that change is hard and will take some time.


    • Good to hear from you Chris. Thanks for reading my blog. I understand the evolutionary stage your company is growing through. Your observations are good ones. There’s so much denial, self deception, magical thinking, false agreement and ego shadow in the workplace that sorting out the dynamics is very tricky. You definitely need authority if there a mixed signals from above. Good luck with your change initiative and I hope all goes well. Take care of yourself and let me know how it is going. Enjoy the Holidays and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year. Doug


  4. Inevitably I look at the top of the organization to explain why it works (or does not work) in any given assignment, project, direction or process. When Leadership is actively and forthrightly engaged, the results are invariably positive and constructive. When it’s all talk…well, not so much…Boom!


    • Hello Mark. Good to hear from you. Thanks for reading my blog and for your excellent comments. Hope to see you in CO sometime soon. I agree and I think the key word in your comments is “engaged” a very commonly used word today but not as widely practiced, in my opinion. We have all heard that the “tree dies from the top.” And, if you read my blog on Ramsey’s rules you may remember this one, “The tree may die from the top, but the first branches lost are usually from the bottom”. Nothing beats real leadership at the top. And, occasionally you actually see it. (-:

      I hope all is well. Happy Holidays… Doug


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