Barriers to Change: Procrastination

Making change involves negative emotions that teams would rather put off indefinitely—even if the change benefits them in the long run

Great news: everyone in your organization is convinced that things need to change… just not right now. Other projects are more urgent, but as soon as they clear up, then you’ll get to it. After all, everyone knows this change initiative is critical to the long-term success of the organization—wouldn’t it make sense to wait for things to calm down so that you can dedicate everyone’s full attention to making change?

As with many barriers to change, delay often comes from a genuine desire to do the right thing. Leaders don’t want to overwhelm already overburdened teams with more work and disruption. External conditions might not be favorable to making a particular change, or an emergency pops up that demands an immediate response. In other words, change becomes a question of time management and competing priorities. 

But sometimes these valid objections mask a different underlying motivation: the desire to avoid negative emotions. And make no mistake, making change can involve plenty of negative emotions. Learning new things is frustrating; failing in front of colleagues feels scary; making a decision to move forward in uncertain or new conditions is risky. It’s much more comforting to put off those potentially uncomfortable experiences—to wait for a “settled” future that never arrives—even if you know the change will benefit you in the long run. This emotional response is Change Procrastination, and it requires a different approach than prioritization or deadlines. 

We worked with one executive team, for instance, that needed to make some fundamental changes to their portfolio. They knew that a few of their categories were poised for growth and required investment, but that meant reallocating resources from long-established (but declining) categories. Every time they tried to make the decision official, they would shy away by calling for more research, or postponing the decision to a future meeting after further discussion. Again, they knew what they should do, but actually making the call would require holding difficult conversations with the category leads who were losing resources, establishing new (and therefore untested) goals for expanding categories, and of course, accepting the possibility that their decision would be wrong.

What makes Change Procrastination even trickier is that realistically, time management challenges and competing priorities will never not be an issue. Emergencies will always occur; quarterly results are due every quarter. But if change initiatives consistently fall to the bottom of the list of priorities, or if you notice that teams go out of their way to create new work before taking on change initiatives, you might need to rethink how you get teams to move forward:

  • Determine what will happen if change doesn’t take place. For better or worse, “urgency,” not “importance,” is typically what takes priority at organizations, so make sure the change really is urgent. If the change doesn’t happen right now, how will the organization be affected? What opportunities will be lost? (Note that this assessment may, in fact, reveal that change can wait—in which case, determine what conditions would need to change for it to become more urgent.) In the executive team’s case, they had a clear deadline: budgets needed to be set for the next business cycle.
  • Investigate why change is deprioritized. Determine why the organization keeps overriding change. Are leaders too ambitious (or unrealistic) about how much work the team can reasonably complete? Is change seen as a “nice to have” but not critical to the operations of the organization? Or do leaders or teams get anxious or nervous when change is discussed, and push for greater certainty? This executive team knew that they had a tendency to stall, but struggled to recognize when and how they enabled this behavior.
  • Build psychological safety and tolerance for failure. Part of the emotional distress involved in change is imagining all the things that could go wrong, so create an environment where individuals feel comfortable taking reasonable risks and sharing concerns with the team. We started by reminding the executive team that most decisions are “Type 2”—if they don’t work out, they can be reversed. 
  • Make change simpler. When change feels overwhelming or too complex, it’s tempting to do literally anything else. Instead, break it down to smaller components and reduce the level of perfection required—whatever it takes to get the change started. For instance, we developed a concise proposal format for all the executive team’s decisions. The consistency and focus helped them concentrate on the decision at hand, rather than getting sidetracked by extraneous considerations.
  • Model self-awareness and emotional regulation. Especially for leaders, it’s important to recognize and tolerate discomfort so you can work through it. The first step is to simply name it: when we noticed the executive team using more jargon, for instance, or starting to ask for more research, we would (gently) reflect that back to them. This put them in the right mindset to reflect on whether they really needed more information, or if they were actually uncomfortable with the uncertainty involved in the decision. 
  • Celebrate and reward progress more frequently. Finally, reduce the unpleasantness of the immediate task by connecting it with an immediate reward. Note that this doesn’t mean throwing a party or awarding bonuses for every milestone—with the executive team, we simply called out and congratulated them every time they made a decision. As they got more comfortable with and faster at making decisions, they started realizing that in fact, they were good at making decisions, which made them want to make more decisions.
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Barriers to Change: Procrastination
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