How to Announce Unpopular Changes – Backed by Research

How to Announce Unpopular Changes – Backed by Research
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Announcing Organizational Change Is Never Easy
My old boss used to say that “The only person that likes change is a wet baby!”  Organizational change can often be perceived as a threat to the status quo and, therefore, can inspire concern, unease, and resistance to change. But imagine if you need to roll out a change in your department that you know from the outset will be unpopular. How should you announce unpopular changes?

Many of the workplace changes wrought by COVID must now be reevaluated. Some changes may be welcome, but others are being greeted with groans.

For example, many clients are struggling with how, when, and if to have employees return to the office.  One CEO told me that only 5% of their workforce was willing to come back into the office even though their work is highly collaborative.

How Do You Sell a Change That People Aren’t Going To Like?
What do change management consulting experts say?  Research from our microlearning experts that is backed by data from our change management simulation suggests that the best way is to announce the change relatively quickly – but then to purposefully delay the implementation.

Why Delay Implementation?
Change that happens later is less threatening. Behavioral psychologists call this phenomenon “future lock-in.” People are much more willing to accept a change that affects them negatively if it happens in the future.

Two Change Announcement Experiments

  • Higher Gas Prices
    In one Harvard study, researchers asked subjects if they’d be in favor of higher gas prices to improve the environment. When told that the price hike would happen immediately, only 26 percent supported the measure.

    However, when told that the hike wouldn’t take effect for a few years, buy-in increased to 41 percent.
  • More Charitable Donations
    In another experiment, an economist at the Stockholm School of Economics asked over 1,000 people who were making monthly charitable donations if they would increase their monthly giving. Half were asked to increase their donation immediately; the other half were told that the change wouldn’t take effect for a month.

    The ones who were granted a one-month delay were more likely to increase their monthly donations. And on average they gave 32% more money.

Explaining Future Lock-In: Costs vs. Benefits
So why does delaying change increase people’s acceptance of it? Psychologists say the change becomes more acceptable because people evaluate near-future and distant-future events differently.

When it comes to change, people who are thinking near-future tend to focus on the costs of change — such as the disruption and losses. For example: If someone is told that they need to go on a diet, they often focus on not being able to eat their favorite foods.  On the other hand, when people are thinking about distant-future events, they’re more likely to focus on the benefits of change, such as: If you want to look and feel better at your high school reunion at the end of the year, this recommended diet may help.

So, for example, if you decide to stop allowing your employees to work from home effective immediately, your employees will most likely focus on the downsides: the hassle of adapting to a new routine, the daily commute, the loss of flexibility. But if you announce the change and delay the start date for a few months, they’ll be more likely to focus on the benefits — more interaction with peers, faster decision making, and more opportunities to learn and get promoted.   

The same is true for changes that affect customers.  If you delay implementation, customers will be more willing to see how the changes make sense.

The Bottom Line
There will be times of urgency, of course, when you must act quickly. However, whenever possible, you’re more likely to get the stakeholder buy-in you want if you can announce unpopular changes but postpone their implementation.

To learn more about how to improve organizational change efforts, download 5 Science-Backed Ways to Get Change Leadership Right

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