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Back to Archives | Back to July 2006 Contents 

Effecting Change: Avoiding the Pitfalls

By William Young, Professor, Organizational Behavior, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana

o often change initiatives in organizations either end up seriously compromised or fail altogether. The result is change-wary officers, frustrated leadership, and usually wasted time and wasted resources. What is it that causes even the simplest changes to inspire anger, pessimism, and resistance?

The key is getting to the cause of resistance. People do not inherently resist change. Instead, they resist what they perceive as losses associated with the change. This is a distinct difference. Common perceptions of loss associated with change include the following:

  • Loss of status: will the change cause a reduction in title, seniority, rank, or responsibilities?

  • Loss of money: will the change affect on-or off-duty incomes?

  • Loss of comfort level: will the change create an uncomfortable environment? One major cause of resistance to change

One major cause of resistance to change that is often overlooked is the loss of self-confidence and self-esteem that can accompany the proposed change. Consider, for example, the effects on an officer proudly serving in an assignment for a number of years, success-fully completing the tasks or duties. The successful completion of these tasks and duties serves as a source of individual pride, confidence, and self-esteem. In addition, certain skills and competencies are acquired only because of these successes. Now, in the wake of a department change initiative, the officer is directed to assume new responsibilities. When the officer has not been involved in the planning of the change and doesn't see the need for change, resistance and concern can be expected.

A common mistake is presuming that others can see the logic of change and react rationally and overlooking that any change causes high-level emotional involvement. Any perception of loss of status, money, comfort, and confidence will cause an emotional response. Appreciating these underlying concepts will allow for a better understanding why changes fail, and how to successfully design and implement change initiatives in achieving departmental goals.

Five Reasons Changes Fail
Although there can be several reasons why changes fail, there are five common causes for failure.

Reason 1: Not enough people on board. Many times managers envision, design, and try to implement changes themselves. This usually involves only a few people, but the change will affect the entire work team, division, or department. The usual technique is to introduce the change through squad meetings, memos, or an order related by sergeants and corporals. Although this strict and powerful hierarchy may prove effective for operational management, it will only encourage resistance to change. Successful change requires subordinates to take ownership in the change.

Reason 2: Lack of vision. One common ingredient for lasting change is vision. Without a clear, concise vision, there is nothing to direct, align, and inspire others to action. Vision is the primary ingredient for effective change leadership.

Reason 3: Not communicating effectively. Most power-oriented and conventional management styles tend to have a one-way communication channel, from the top downward. Rarely do subordinates have an opportunity to express ideas or concerns back up through the chain of command. In this case, subordinates might not share the vision of leadership and therefore lack the motivation to successfully make change.

Reason 4: No sense of urgency. The real difficulty in implementing change is to develop enough steam to breakthrough the barriers of the status quo, the most common cultural trait in traditional organizations. According to economist John Keynes, "The greatest difficulty in the world is not for people to accept new ideas, but to forget the old ones."1 Experience has shown that without a clear sense of urgency the status quo wins, and most changes never really get off the ground.

Reason 5: The organization's culture is not in alignment with the proposed change.
The organization's structure itself might be preventing successful change. For example, if the appraisal, recognition, or compensation system is not in alignment with proposed changes, the changes are destined to fail.

Successful Change Readiness
Successful change begins with a plan. For change to have a chance, the organizational culture itself must be evaluated, and adjusted if need be, to the proposed changes. Only when the organizational culture and goals are in alignment can changes take hold and last.

Many tools and techniques are available to assess organizational cultures. The Organizational Culture Inventory2 and the Campbell Organizational Survey3 have been used successfully. For example, with organizational culture inventory instruments, officers and staff complete an assessment that measures and reveals the shared behavioral expectations in the organization. These are statistical results based on a database of thousands of organizations. The result is an analysis of culture styles ranging from constructive, passive-defensive, and aggressive-defensive styles.

The information reveals primary cultural styles as perceived by the entire work team, a department, or a division in the department. The scores can also be broken down into subgroups, revealing cultural differences on a unit or shift level, as well as other groups such as the investigative or the support services level. The data from the results also allow benchmarking against ideal and successful organizations as well as other police, fire, and military organizations.

The objective of using a survey is to obtain accurate, detailed information that can be aligned with proposed goals and changes in a logical and congruent manner. Quality decisions are made with as much information as possible, and a cultural assessment provides that reliable information.

Five Steps for Creating Lasting Change
Change Step 1: Assess the division's readiness to accept the proposed goals and changes. Are the proposed changes and goals in harmony with the values of personnel and in harmony with the unit's mission? Will the current culture support the new goals or reject them? These are the primary factors to be considered before planning or introducing changes.

Change Step 2: Clearly define and communicate the vision. In order to effectively influence employees, the goals and changes have to communicate a clear and concise ideal. Change readiness is not only an organization's capacity for making change but also the extent that members perceive the change is needed. The leadership's vision enhances that perception.

Change Step 3: Establish a change coalition. The more people that are involved and believe in the change, the greater the chances of breaking through the status quo and achieving it. Design the change effort to allow subordinates to take ownership of changes and new goals. Put the loudest dissenters on committees in charge of solutions.

Change Step 4: Mark the changes as urgent. Without a strong sense of urgency, changes are placed behind seemingly more important matters. Since there are always important matters and little discretionary time, changes often are placed on the back burner until they are abandoned or completely forgotten. They then are added to the long list of change failures and are treated with skepticism the next time they are introduced.

Change Step 5: Plan and execute effectively. Create a winning plan that includes short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. Include major acknowledgment after each goal is met. Plan on dealing with resistance from the beginning. Continue to meet and update progress every two weeks or every month until the new changes become an established part of the culture.

The ability to successfully embrace and implement change is essential to the efficient organization. Like most things, effecting change becomes easier with experiences that build on successes. ■

1 John Maynard Keynes, economist, 1883-1946. This quotation has also been rendered as follows: "The real difficulty in changing any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones."
2 Organizational Culture Inventory by Human Synergistic was developed by Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D., and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D. See (, May 25, 2006.
3 Bradley University, Foster College of Business Administration, "Campbell Organizational Survey," (, May 25, 2006.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 7, July 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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