Barriers to Change: Lack of Authority

If teams believe they don't have the right to make decisions about how they work, they won't feel responsible for making change

Leaders of change are often frustrated by their teams’ seeming inaction: you’ve already explained why change is so important and exhorted them to start doing things differently. So why aren’t they doing it? 

If there’s no clear owner or authority to appeal to, it might feel like no one has the rights to make changes, and it’s just “how things are done.”

An overlooked barrier to change is that if not explicitly stated, they might not feel like they have the right to make change, and that they can’t make decisions that would change how people work. While this might seem like a problem for more junior roles, we’ve seen this at every level of the organization. This hesitation is typically because:

  • No one is “in charge” of work processes. Who’s responsible for deciding how meetings are run at your organization? Who determines how decisions are made within those meetings? Who has the right to call for a retrospective if something isn’t working? If there’s no clear owner or authority to appeal to, it might feel like no one has the rights to make changes, and it’s just “how things are done.” And if no one has the clear, designated authority to say go, nothing changes—or competing claims to authority turn into a tug of war, frustrating teams as they stop and go. 
  • Decision-making has become more consensual. In general, this is a good thing; as markets become more complex, input from individuals with different expertise can lead to smarter decisions. But it also means that people can get offended if they’re not given an opportunity to weigh in. Especially if they’ve been weighing in on a decision for some time, once that right is taken away, they’ll feel like they’re losing something.
  • They’ve gotten in trouble for introducing change before. They made a choice at one point in their career and it failed. At its worst, this can be a form of learned helplessness—people have undergone so much stress and negative feedback in the past when they’ve tried to make change that even if they are given an opportunity for change, they won’t. 

At the beginning of an engagement with one client, for instance, the team was convinced that change was impossible. Their demanding customers expected high levels of service and input, and the threat of them going to a competitor was simply too great to risk their ire. We acknowledged this concern, but asked them to humor us and review some of their processes anyway. To their surprise, they found that much of the work they thought came from customers—particularly rounds of reviews and approvals—actually originated from the organization. Customers only went along with it because they thought that’s what the organization needed. Not only were they able to streamline their work process, it changed their entire attitude towards change: suddenly, they realized it was possible. 

To empower teams to take control of their working conditions:

  • Make changes within your zone of control. When people think about organizational change, it’s a lot easier (and more comfortable) to think about all the things other people could do to make your life easier—unfortunately, you don’t have control over other people. Instead, get individuals to think about the changes 
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities. Make it clear who has the authority to do what, and what’s open for anyone to try. Similarly, define arenas or boundaries for change—for instance, budgetary limits, time limits, or functions within the organization—where people can safely experiment with change, and when they need to get approval. This will probably involve giving up some of your authority and dealing with things you don’t like, so be prepared to deal with those emotions as a leader.
  • Show real examples of change being possible. No amount of cajoling, threats, or rewards will motivate someone out of learned helplessness. The only way to get people moving again is to show them change has actually happened within the organization. It’s best if it comes from the people who were directly involved in the change.
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Barriers to Change: Lack of Authority
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