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Employees May Resist Digital Transformation – What Leaders Can Do to Drive Change

As published in CIOReview. 

Imagine a virtual Town Hall where leaders are announcing the company’s next big initiatives in digital transformation. On-screen, employee after employee is smiling in acknowledgment of the business benefits that it can bring. But many of those employees are immediately – and unconsciously – starting to fear and resist the changes that digital transformation will initiate, making transformation success difficult for CIOs.

The fact that studies show 70 percent of digital transformations fail to deliver expected results is no surprise to Cheryl Ferguson, President and Co-Founder of global change consulting firm, Daggerwing Group. “For so long, the focus of digital transformation has been about implementing tools and technology,” says Cheryl. “Leaders may not understand that people are actually hardwired to resist change and react with negative biases although the new digital tools make perfect business sense.”

But, why are people such a barrier to digital transformation success?

Cheryl answers, “In our experience, most executives hope that their digital transformation announcements will be met with excitement – especially if it will help employees perform tasks faster or generate valuable data for decision-making. So, when employees react to the news with fear and resistance, executives are often shocked and unprepared.”

In fact, those employees are not intentionally undermining CIOs digital vision – they are reacting the way their brains are hardwired to react to any type of change. Some employees will be biased towards the status quo – believing everything is best the way it is, so new digital technology isn’t needed. Some employees will be biased towards fear of loss – worrying about how it will impact their own role and job security. And some employees may be merely indifferent or react with a sense of fatigue from all the other changes that may be going on in the company – which can still undermine enthusiastic adoption. Shifting employees from resistance to acceptance is possible but takes more than a few all-employee emails and training sessions.

A successful digital transformation starts when a senior leader communicates to employees about what’s happening. That initial engagement has to start with sharing a clear, simple, and hopeful vision about what is changing, why, and why now. So, the need for urgency versus delay is understood.

And when sharing that information, senior leaders need to explain the benefits to both the company and individual employees. Another key element of an initial message from senior leadership is addressing concerns they know will be in the hearts of their employees – wondering what digital transformation means for jobs, skill gaps, and ways of working.

How can leaders help in changing employees’ habits?

Senior leaders play a key role in driving awareness and understanding about digital change as a first step to getting employees to accept and embrace what’s coming. The next step is to equip and enable people managers to get their teams to take action in new ways. Employees are more likely to resist change that is done to them compared to change done with them. So, managers are advised to make the employees in their team feel like they have an important part to play in what’s happening. Cheryl mentions, “It’s not just front-line employees that fear change of digital transformation. In many cases, even other senior leaders and managers worry that they themselves lack the expertise required to realize a company’s digital transformation vision.” CIOs need to ensure fellow senior leaders’ psychological safety to acknowledge worries and skill gaps. It is helpful to spread the understanding that with digital transformation, everyone will be upskilling and continuously learning. “You need to hold leaders and managers accountable for making digital transformation happen, but you also need to give them the coaching and messaging they need to be successful with their people,” Cheryl adds.

Corporate leaders with expertise in creating competitive advantage with tech and data also need to be experts in the human side of transformation. It is important to accept that employees will start out resisting the exciting digital plan you can’t wait to implement – but with the right empathy and engagement, employee resistance can be shifted to enthusiastic acceptance.

Cheryl is the CEO & Co-Founder of Daggerwing Group – taking great pride in helping clients break the cycle of change management failure to see their transformation visions realized. For more than 20 years, Cheryl has worked globally on the people side of business transformation challenges ranging from corporate customer-centricity shifts and talent strategies to enterprise-wide culture change and the introduction of new operating models. She has deep specialization in helping marketing leaders at Fortune 500 firms transform the role of marketers and modernize marketing practices and capabilities.