Yeah, we get it — sustaining behavior change is one of the hardest things a person can do. Just look at all the half-empty gyms by mid-February! Well, the same goes for change at the organizational level.
Businesses are in the habit of hosting town halls and hiring expensive motivational speakers when they’re looking to initiate organizational change. The problem is, just like with New Year’s resolutions, there’s an initial ‘boom’ of motivation and a subsequent ‘bust’ in the following weeks as people revert back to old habits and ways of doing things. Or leadership moves on to the next, hottest business fad.
It’s clear that a more sustainable strategy for organizational change is needed — one that can scale and reinforce desired behaviors. On a daily basis. But, to create the most effective strategy, it’s essential to understand what really are the biggest obstacles to sustaining behavior change.
To gain a deeper insight into those obstacles, we spoke directly with leading thought leaders in the area of organizational change.
“Changing one’s behavior most commonly fails not from a lack of understanding what to do or a desire to change, but from the absence of continual practice. The issue we find is that deep practice takes time and a lot of (real or perceived) urgent activities are vying for our attention every day. It’s the investment in and commitment to practice that takes us from desire and concept to behavior change and ingrained habit.” — Todd Macey, President of Vital Learning
“Sustained behavior change requires feedback that compels a shift from the status quo. The greatest obstacle to leveraging feedback for change is not that employees don’t get enough feedback about their behavior, but rather that they don’t get credible feedback and when they do, there is no accountability for making course corrections in line with what they heard.” — Dale Rose, Ph.D., President of 3D Group
“Leaders at all levels have difficulty with providing clear and effective communication that taps into the individual motivators of the people they are speaking to. The initial communication must start from the top leaders and be addressed in a way that regardless of what initiative/ program/ strategy/ mission/ value/ culture issue they are trying to change they must paint the picture of why it is important to the organization, how it helps support the organization’s strategic plan, mission, values, and culture and what this means to the continued success of the organization.” — Dawn Cacciotti, Founder and CEO of Engage HR Now
“The single biggest obstacle to creating sustainable behavior change is in the initial effort and willpower. Most will give up before the change becomes a true habit. You have to have a powerful ‘why’ (one of your own making, not a ‘why’ fed to you by society) and a minimum 90-day plan to give the change a chance.” — Kristi Kirkland, President of Answer Marketing
“The single biggest obstacle to creating sustainable behavior change is us: we simply lack the leadership chops because we underestimate the work required to help our colleagues make and keep making the changes. The thing we most underestimate is the need for us to communicate and keep communicating the “why” behind the change. And we also underestimate the type of shoulder-to-shoulder coaching we must provide and the quantity and length of coaching required.” — Trent Kaufman, CEO of Cicero Group
“To me the biggest issue is not taking time to understand the underlying motivational drivers — individually or collectively as a culture — and then positioning/communicating the change in terms of those drivers. Setting the stage for change and getting emotional/motivational buy-in is the make or break critical success factor in my view to sustainable behavior change. Beyond that, not breaking down the change in small, digestible, positive reinforcing steps with lots of feedback and peer/management support would be the second biggest obstacle.” — Denise Corcoran, CEO of Empowered Business
“For individuals, ‘you can’t manage what you can’t control.’ Hence, in order to create and sustain behavior change, focus on the process, not the outcome. To do so, create and celebrate small wins that build up to the desired change so it becomes a habit over time and through repetition.” — Dave Mattson, CEO of Sandler Training
“The single biggest obstacle to creating sustainable behaviour change is the focus on behaviour! Strange right? All behaviour stems from beliefs. First we have a belief, then we take action (or not). For example, if we believe that we do not have permission to make a specific decision, then it’s unlikely that we will make that decision. The biggest mistake that leaders make is to focus on behaviours rather than beliefs. When we pay attention to beliefs and take the time to line up beliefs with desired outcomes, behaviours automatically change and become sustainable.” — Kim Ades, Founder and President of Frame of Mind Coaching
“The single biggest obstacle is thinking people are the obstacle to change — rather than the key to change. Treating people with dignity, respect, and care is essential. Genuinely working with people to engage minds and hearts creates the conditions where people can learn — and learning is key to behavior change.” — Cheryl Fields Tyler, CEO of Blue Beyond Consulting
“In my experience working with some of the top CEO’s in the world and their organizations, the one obstacle to creating and sustaining behavior change are leaders who are either unable or unwilling to make the decision to be vulnerable. Vulnerability—being humble, being open to feedback, being open to admitting that you don’t always have the best approach or answer, is the absolute instigator to growth in people and positive change. Vulnerability also ignites learning and change agility in people and organizations—which enables people and the organization to navigate disruption.” — John Mattone, Founder and CEO of John Mattone
“For an organization to have sustainable changes, employees must recognize and accept that innovations must happen for the company to move forward. Employees also must understand how their efforts contribute to change efforts. When employees know how they can impact change at the company, it empowers them to act in the organization’s best interest. Equally as important, employees need to know that it is OK to fail, particularly if we can learn something from it. Failing without fear can motivate employees to achieve some really strong outcomes, especially when they have the support of company leaders.” — Cameron Bishop, Founder and CEO of SkillPath
“Many organizations or the managers who work directly with staff do not explain a cogent reason ‘Why’ a behavior change is required, both for the organization and for the individual employee. Without a compelling vision that answers this question, buy-in and sustainability are going to be difficult to achieve.” — Malati Marlene Shinazy, Principal Consultant of Pacific Leadership Consultants
Whether it’s because of poor communication, undermotivation, or false beliefs, these leaders agree that there are significant obstacles to achieving sustained behavior change. This is why 70% of organizational change initiatives fail to accomplish their desired outcome. So as we see it, effective strategies and connecting the “Why” with those strategies are essential for overcoming the many obstacles to change. Oh, and when in doubt, over-communicate — a lesson my wife wishes I would practice at home!
Finally, at the organization level, people simply won’t sustain their new behaviors without a system in place that feels worthwhile to most stakeholders. We find that the solution to this is to focus on continuous daily reminders and inspirational nudges. By making these continuous improvements each day we get a little closer to the change we desire.
While it may be a marathon and not a sprint, you still need to get started before you’ll see success. Reach out today to learn how you can take the first steps towards lasting behavior change.
Billy is a husband and father of triplets, Professor of entrepreneurship, and Co-Founder of ProHabits. He enjoys helping others find their why while still figuring it out himself.