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What is change management and how can psychology help?

Change management is something that we often hear about, and more often than not, we hear about how difficult it is to achieve. But what exactly is change management? In simple terms, change management is preparing companies (and the people in those companies) for changes within their organization. There are typically three levels to consider: individual change (how individual people in the organization will handle change), organizational change (identifying groups that need to change and supporting them throughout the process), and enterprise change (the company procedures as a whole).  

There are many reasons that change management is difficult to achieve, the most obvious one being that change is hard! It’s completely normal for people to resist it. A more specific reason is that the people leading change are not always well-equipped to handle it. Change management involves many psychological mechanisms. Thus, simply demanding that someone alter their behavior will likely fail. Instead, it’s important to understand what people respond best to. This requires understanding psychological concepts such as attitude formation, motivation, and positive reinforcement.  

Cognitive dissonance is one example of a psychological concept that can be used in change management. People feel threatened when their actions contradict their beliefs. As a result, they reduce dissonance by changing either their belief or action to align with the other. This means that if the individuals in an organization truly believe in that organization’s mission and purpose, they are more likely to make sure their behavior aligns with it. Therefore, clearly communicating the reason for the change is essential. If the employees believe in the new approach’s promise, behavioral change is more likely to follow.  

Every case is different, so understanding these psychological mechanisms can help leaders alter their approach to best fit their company. This doesn’t mean that change management can’t be effective if done by someone without a psychology background; it just means that an understanding of psychology can help. Enacting change in even one person is difficult, making company-wide change a massive undertaking. However, even just being thoughtful about which techniques to use can go a long way.