Three Truths for Breaking the Cycle of Toxic Change

Startup team meets at night

There is little argument that every organization must change. Change is a prerequisite for any organization’s survival and, more importantly, ability to thrive. Unfortunately, change is also one reason many organizations fail to survive or thrive. 

One study of IT implementations found that 17% of IT projects go so wrong they threaten the company’s existence. Another found that 80% of reorganizations fail to deliver the intended value, and 10% damage the company. 

How you approach and enable your employees to navigate the change process can make the difference between success and failure. 

Toxic Versus Healthy Organizational Change 

Toxic change can occur when an organization implements multiple changes that never seem to stick, doesn’t adequately assess the complexity or magnitude of a change, or pushes through changes without understanding its impact on the people and the operation. Employees burn out from the constant bombardment of one change initiative after another. They learn to fear and attempt to avoid change. As a result, leaders start to believe employees are resistant to change. 

Toxic change wastes time and money and ultimately hurts your organization’s ability to respond to future changes. 

Healthy organizational change sets your organization up for success. Employees demonstrate high readiness levels, actively participate, and adopt new behaviors so they stick. This increases your organization’s change capacity, as employees feel more prepared and capable of successfully handling other changes you need to make.   

It is possible to break the cycle of toxic change and enable healthy and sustainable change. You can also achieve multiple changes without creating burnout and change fatigue. Start by acknowledging and adhering to these three truths about change:

Truth #1: Multi-tasking Is a Myth

Most of us like the idea of multitasking — and in today’s world, the ability to multitask is almost worn as a badge of honor. But the idea that we can do two activities simultaneously is an illusion.

It may appear — and you may feel — as if you are listening to your colleague’s presentation in a Zoom meeting, reading your email, and managing your texts simultaneously. But you are not. The reality is your brain is switching from one task to another. And all that switching comes at a cost. 

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t save time. Tasks can take 50% longer with 50% more mistakes when we multitask. A Stanford University study identified the tasks that people who multitask perform better than people who rarely or never multitask. In each test, the researchers found that multitaskers underperformed

The same is true with organizational change initiatives. Multitasking change initiatives without a holistic systems approach pose two risks for organizations. The first risk is that with each additional change initiative, it becomes less likely that any one initiative will be fully implemented. The second risk is that you get lulled into the false belief that change has occurred because you implemented an event. 

The more change initiatives you have in your organization, the less likely any real change will occur. With each additional change initiative, it becomes harder and harder for leaders and employees to know what’s important and where to focus their energy.

You can create collateral change when you approach your organizational change efforts holistically. Collateral change is when you accomplish one desired outcome as a byproduct of another change initiative. 

Truth #2: Implementing a Change Event Doesn’t Mean Any Change Has Occurred

Every change has two dimensions: the Event and the Whitespace. The Event is the situation or decision that triggers the need or desire for change. The Whitespace is that space between where you and your team are before the event and where you need to be to achieve the desired outcome. William Bridges, a preeminent authority on change, defined it as the transition — the psychological process people must go through to reach the desired outcome. It is intangible and internal, yet all real change occurs in Whitespace.

Making decisions and implementing the event doesn’t mean people will adopt the new behaviors and activities needed to achieve the intended outcome. Initiating a new change initiative before people have successfully navigated through the Whitespace of the current or last changes creates confusion. It increases the likelihood that the latest activities and behaviors won’t stick.

We saw this with one CEO we worked with to get their changes organized and on track. The company had implemented a new sales process and trained the sales team on the new system. From an event perspective, the change was complete. 

However, shortly after its implementation, the leaders noticed the sales team had reverted to their old sales process. They were not following through with the new one. Our analysis of the situation revealed that most of the reasons for the sales team reverting back were because not enough time and energy had been spent on helping them fully navigate through the second dimension of change — the Whitespace.

Change doesn’t occur until people let go of their current way of working, unlearn old behaviors to learn new behaviors, and consistently demonstrate them. Only then can the intended outcome of the decision be reached and sustained.

Truth #3: You Need to Create the Space Within Your Operational Environment for Change to Occur

Every organizational change takes place within the context of your operational environment, those day-to-day activities that keep your business running and operations almost always take priority. Therefore, you must create time and space for people to unlearn old actions and behaviors, learn new ways of working and embed the new activities and behaviors as usual.

Creating and adopting new activities and behaviors is uncomfortable, requiring more time and energy than current activities. We are also hard-wired to get the most done with the least effort; that’s why we form habits quickly.

When you combine the discomfort and extra energy it takes to adopt new activities and behaviors with a full or overloaded plate of operational tasks, the new activities will drop off. Real change, the kind that grows your organization and enables your employees to contribute their best, won’t happen if it’s just another initiative added to an already full plate.

What’s the solution? Let’s look at the importance of mindset as the foundation for building healthy and sustainable change. 

Mindset Matters When Breaking the Cycle of Toxic Change 

Mindset is the way we see the world. It allows us to engage with the world efficiently. If we had to manage everything in our environment moment-by-moment, we would quickly become overwhelmed.

Mindset is crucial because it orientates us toward a unique understanding of any situation and determines our decisions, actions, and response. It’s the filter through which we see, interpret, and respond to the world.

When it comes to change, the prevailing idea has been that people are essentially resistant to change. However, this concept perpetuates a cycle of toxic change. When working from the idea that people are resistant to change, our brain tricks us into misinterpreting normal human reactions to change as resistance.

The Readiness Mindset

We can change how we think about change by shifting to a Readiness Mindset™. A Readiness Mindset is grounded in the belief that human beings are built for change. When working with a readiness mindset, you demonstrate curiosity about people’s reactions, ask questions, and focus on moving toward something new or different. This breaks the cycle of resistance by creating a new frame of reference and filter for interpreting people’s reactions to the change event.  

When you work from a resistant mindset, it’s easy to hear comments or questions that challenge the value, intent, or outcome of a proposed change as unfavorable. This triggers your confirmatory bias around the belief that people resist change.

Conversely, when you work with a readiness mindset, you hear those same comments as valuable information about your change initiative, feelings of the person or group, their level of preparedness, and even their history with change. You can use this information to actively affirm and create a process and plan for making the time and space needed for new activities to embed as normal. 

That’s when real change occurs, and you break the cycle of toxic change.