Barriers to Why Leaders Resist Change

A business challenge that is becoming more acute is that the rate of change is accelerating. 

Take the auto sector. Today, only 27% of 16-year-olds have their driver’s license. Ride and car-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar have made having a license and car ownership an option.

Airbnb has disrupted the hospitality business.

Blockbuster failed to respond quickly to the disruptive presence of Netflix.

In 1958 the average lifespan of an S&P company was 61 years and is only 20 years today.

The important question for leaders is do companies need to experience a near collapse before they respond to change, become agile, and start innovating?

With changes happening at a rapid pace, leaders need to act fast and innovate to fuel future growth.

But it’s not always easy to act quickly.

  • Your board and investors expect steady revenue growth and profitability
  • Your employees are accustomed to doing things a certain way
  • Your customers may reject opportunities to try new products

There are many barriers to why leaders resist change. Some that make it difficult to quickly respond to change are:

Fear and Uncertainty

In a corporate setting, we hate to admit we feel fear because we're not supposed to feel that way. Though fear is a natural human emotion, we don't necessarily need to allow it take hold of us and render us immobilized. There are things we can do about it!

The first thing is to recognize that fear is fueled by uncertainty. An effective way to work around fear is to address it head-on by identifying what may happen, what may go wrong, and what we will do about it.

Not Taking Risks

We fear taking risks because there's a lot to lose if things go wrong: money, brand equity, our reputation, customer relationships, and people either through job loss or willful termination of employment.

As humans, we avoid risk and strive for certainty and consistency. However not being willing to take risks leads to not trying new things, inaction, and inertia.

To accept more risk try the following:

  • Embrace uncertainty
  • View uncertainty as an opportunity to build a new competitive advantage
  • Find ways to manage risk effectively
  • Think through the worst thing that could happen, estimate the impact, act

Not Meeting Investor Expectations

Investors (including business owners) expect consistency in revenue, earnings growth, and profitability.

Leaders strive to meet quarterly earnings expectations. Because of this, they are less willing to take more risk today to earn a greater return tomorrow: they choose the "sure bet" and take less risk today to meet earnings projections tomorrow.

One thing to consider is that leaders may wrongly hold the assumption that investors are not willing to take on more risk to receive a greater return. Often, they are.

No Crisis Exists

It's hard to make the case for change when things are going well, and there is nothing that is forcing us to act. People prefer stability and consistency.

However, there are risks in coasting because savvy leaders are actively looking to identify emerging business opportunities and moving quickly to capture them. They are anticipating competitor moves, market changes, and new technologies to gain a competitive advantage over slower moving or resistant-to-change competitors.

Customer Resistance to Change

Customers are also conservative about trying new products, services, features, and benefits.

It takes them years to test and implement a new product. And because they can’t change fast, we can’t change fast.

Actions to take to remove this barrier are to better identify customers’ needs:

  • Gain continuous customer feedback
  • Get customers involved in developing new products and services
  • Continuously update and improve products (rather than once per year)
  • Enable customers to customize offerings

Lack of Employee Creativity and Learning

Often, decisions are made at the top and funneled down to employees to act upon. People who don't do the jobs provide employees detailed instructions how to do their jobs.

The bottom line is employees know how to do their jobs best, what problems exist, what needs to change to make things work better and are the ones to tap into to generate creative ideas.

Another common thing that happens is leaders pursue only opportunities that are achievable with current capabilities, which prevents future business growth and necessary skills development.

To stimulate creativity, learning and growth here are some actions to take:

  • Form cross-functional teams to attack particular opportunities and problems
  • Grant employees leeway to get the job done
  • Connect employees across organizational silos to stimulate new ideas
  • Add capabilities by acquiring new learning and skills
  • Set clear and aggressive learning goals
  • Make fast, focused leaning a prime objective

There are many more barriers to change, one of the most common being cultural issues. You can read about transforming organizational culture in this article.

One of the most powerful things leaders can do is to identify barriers to change by asking challenging questions that inspire discovery, new insights, and new action.

Like it or not, it’s time to throw out the old rulebook and start fresh with approaches that make sense for the new economy to pave the way to success not only for you but for your team and your customers, as well.

What barriers to change does your organization face? If you'd like to be more agile and adapt to change faster please contact us at


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