Is it safe to change? Why organizations stay the same


By Max Bailey

In his series on change, Max challenges dogma in organizational change methods; showing why they fail and presenting an alternative, more sustainable approach to change which focuses on the interpersonal aspects of change. In his previous article, Max explains the concept of resilience, and why it is needed more than ever in the 21st century.

How often do standard change methods result in actual, deep rooted and lasting change?

According to the Gartner: 50% of change efforts are clear failures, 16% have mixed results and only the remainder are somewhat successful. If we want to create real, sustainable change, then top down classical methods for change may not work.

Everyone is talking innovation, collaboration, intra/entrepreneurialism, agility, decentralisation of power, digitalisation, the VUCA world, but all to few realize the sort of changes we will have to make to achieve it. I see this talk as a wider desire of organizations to become ‘resilient’ - the ability to stay the course, develop and expand in the face of massive and unrelenting change in society. In simple terms, let us define a resilient business as an organisation that is able to continuously evolve with the market and social environment; thereby experiencing sustainability and success.

Becoming resilient entails a great deal more than adopting the latest collaboration platform, hiring data analytics graduates or talking about intrapreneurialism. While these things may bring results, they will all too often change very little with regard to how you and your colleagues actually collaborate and innovate to stay relevant.

So what are the more deep rooted cultural, human changes that need to come about in order to unlock innovation and flexibility? It seems that these human changes are often labelled as a ‘mindset shift’, and then quickly brushed over as if it’s all rather simple and obvious. But in reality, people, the beating heart of any change movement, are rarely simple and obvious. In reality, people are much more complex than the data they provide, and the tools they use.

To create change and become a resilient business, you need to set the stage for you and your colleagues to become resilient. To develop resilient people you need to create experiences that challenge beliefs and those common behaviours that are encouraging people to be rigid, fragile and unwilling to change.

Seeking Comfort & Safety - Reluctance to Change

You’ve heard of the comfort zone? To put it simply, most people want to stay in it most of the time, because being out of it is by definition not comfortable. Change inevitably means something out of the ordinary and therefore should bring people out into the discomfort zone. A frightening place, but also an open space with possibilities. If your change journey seems light and fluffy, and is only focussing on the positive side of things, if people are feeling happy all the time… well you are probably not really changing anything.

It is my firm belief, that all humans are capable of incredible resilience, flexibility and creativity. The point is to reconnect to those inherent human capacities. This reconnection is a journey going deeply into what prevents people from already being their most resilient selves, and this will invariably involve uncertainty, even fear and suffering.


This is down to psychology. To put it simply: as collect experiences in our lives, either comfortable or uncomfortable, decisions are made about people, the environment, and ourselves. A mental model of the world is built up around what is pleasant, and what is unpleasant and perhaps even dangerous. The mind would like the body to go on, and so does things to avoid discomfort. Imagine as a child at school, a boy had some behaviour that the teacher didn’t like and was punished for it: the suffering that followed (perhaps feelings of shame, guilt, of not being seen or understood) may have lead to a decision to always be quiet and not engage in order to avoid pain. Furthermore, the real problem is that the decision is self reinforcing: the mind looks for things that prove this was a good decision. From thereon in, beliefs and behaviours are formed around the model. This kind of decision making and model reinforcing goes on throughout life.

The implication of this model building is that it might start to constrain new experiences by pre-judging them as safe/not safe. People will often choose to stick with what they know (the comfort zone) as opposed to get into something new.

So in our organisations, when we expect change, this is what we face. Battle-hardened mental models, fear of the new and avoidance of imagined pain, manifesting as ‘fixed’ behaviours.

The trouble is that it’s very difficult to convince someone to change aspects of their mental models with logical argument alone. Telling someone that they should be more flexible and how it will be better for their engagement will have limited success. In most cases it will simply cause them stick to their guns about not changing. Think about it: do you like being told how to be?  

If logic and intellectual argument is not the key to touching deep rooted belief systems, then what is?

An alternative approach is to create experiences that challenge models, beliefs and behaviours, and force deeper reflection. This opens up the possibility to make conscious choices about beliefs and behaviours and strip away layers of protection that may not make sense anymore.  

Obviously a situation where beliefs are challenged can be very unsettling (people are outside the comfort zone). By definition, it will likely involve uncomfortable feelings, judgemental thoughts, and in the most intense cases can be threatening to the very identity of a person.  Imagine if you had been through an education system and early career, playing it safe to become a project manager using classical methods, hooked into a matrix organisation where the career paths look certain, the world and the games in it are understood. Your identity could be wrapped up in the position you hold, the pay grade you’ve accomplished, the competences you’ve acquired, the history of your achievements.  Then suddenly the CEO comes along as says: “we’re going to go to a completely decentralised entrepreneurial network with agile like project teams and cross organisational communities, all functions are obsolete and will no longer exist.” Depending on your resilience, this change in the environment could be so challenging to how your model of the world is built that it simply cannot be processed intellectually. Can you imagine the fear?  The self doubting? The anger? The shear frustration of it all? Possibly even disbelief that this is really happening? All those years down the drain. No wonder people don’t change easily.

But this place of discomfort is where the magic happens. This is where change really has the opportunity to manifest, because the mind and body are open to new possibilities.  Destabilising as it is, this is when people are really alive and feeling something different: they are outside the comfort zone and awake to what’s going on.

So the key to creating change one of creating situations that can be uncomfortable? Yes, but not alone. There is a second and crucial part to this recipe.

The safety paradox

If discomfort and feeling unsafe is the way to invite change, paradoxically, the key to success in this journey is another, less known form of safety. Here we talk of what Google calls psychological safety.  This is the level of safety people feel they have to explore these uncomfortable feelings in dialogue with others.

According to Client Centred Therapist Carl Rogers, it is only possible for people to shed their self limiting beliefs and become resilient when they have a safe environment: one of trust, openness and welcoming of all things without judgement. An environment where thoughts and feelings can be brought out and examined, and ultimately let go of if they no longer make sense.

Google investigated this as part of ‘project aristotle’, where they identified psychological safety as THE factor that makes team collaboration and creativity a success. Their report states that safety was a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’’ and ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”, including when it comes to matters of personal perspectives and even emotion: “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”.

So in addition to question of how to invite change by recognizing discomfort, the questions also become, how to also open this environment of openness and trust? How to create that safe dialogue and space that allows the reflection and change to happen? How to collectively get into those depths of human experience when there may be an environment that is quite the opposite in many work contexts?

Change towards resilience - a tale of two halves

We have seen that business resilience is to a large extent relient on personal resilience.  We have looked at how becoming resilient is a capacity all people have. We have touched on what makes personal change difficult.

Finally, we have seen that a way to create change movement is to create, dig into and welcome discomfort, but that this is only half the story.  To give it any chance of success, we must also learn how to create an environment of safety so people can go into the discomfort.

In next week’s article we go more deeply into some tried and tested ways to invite this transformation movement.