top of page
  • Toby Sinclair

5 Change Management Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

How and what we communicate will influence how people respond. It’s critical for leaders, coaches and change management teams to be aware of how they communicate change. This article explores how a well-intentioned message may backfire.

5 Change Management Mistakes

  1. Distance - Communicating change that feels distant from everyday concerns.

  2. Doom - Overemphasis on the negative side of change. If we don't change we'll go out of business!

  3. Dissonance - Enabling people to easily explain away why the change isn't relevant to them

  4. Denial - Not listening fully to employees who deny change.

  5. iDentity - Ignoring the fact that we filter news and information through our identity, rejecting ideas that challenge our existing values and notions.

Per Espen Stoknes - 5 D's of Climate Change
Per Espen Stoknes - 5 D's of Climate Change

Here I expand upon each of the 5'Ds in an organisational change context. By understanding each of the 5 D's you can better understand why change is not happening and ways to adjust your change management approach.

Distance –  “By 2025 we will be the best in Industry”

Long Road

Many employees see change efforts as a distant ideal which doesn’t apply to them. This problem arises when senior management declares a bold vision for the future, often several years into the future. They declare it will be a “long journey” with rewards at the end. The intention is to create motivation and alignment but often employees return back to work in the same way. The need for change seems far into the distance. Many simply wait for the time when they need to change.

This is a human bias called Temporal Discounting:

Temporal discounting refers to the phenomenon in which the subjective value of some reward loses its magnitude when the given reward is delayed

Translated into an Organisation Change context: Why should I change now when the reward is not until many years into the future?

What is a better change management approach?

A good way to overcome this bias is to break down the change into smaller, manageable chunks. This helps employees understand the iterations towards the bigger vision. What can employees do today, tomorrow and next week that can help move towards the vision? This approach helps the change feel more real and tangible.

Nir & Far have a great article which explores Temporal Discounting further

Goal Setting Cartoon

Doom“70% of fortune 1000 companies have vanished in the last 10 years”


This is a common quote used to stir up the urgency for change. Whilst this statement is factually true, we are psychologically wired to ignore these messages, known as Normalcy bias. Messages such as “The end is nigh” are sent straight to the trash bin in our brains.

Normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, and its potential adverse effects.

What is a better change management approach?

One of the best ways is to focus on stories closer to home. Instead of selecting industry soundbites, find real stories from within the organisation. Even better from your customers. Storytelling directly from customers helps create an emotional connection to the problem and a sense of urgency. Disintermediation is important here. Reduce the layers between the customer and the team. If the message is relayed through the organisational hierarchy it looses its emotional impact.

Dissonance - "I'm happy for my team to self-organise but right now they are not mature enough"

Cartoon Rabbit

If what we know conflicts with what we do then cognitive dissonance kicks in. A great example is when managers know that teams work best when they are self-organised but continue to adopt a command-and-control management style. A manager may explain this away by saying “This team are just not mature enough to be self-organising.” I have found the "maturity" excuse is a common sign of dissonance.

Another common example with organisation change is when employees say "We want to adopt agile ways of working but our situation is unique" Again the snowflake excuse is another great sign of dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Cartoon

What is a better change management approach?

The main way to overcome cognitive dissonance is to become more aware of it. This is where skilled coaches can act as a mirror highlighting where behaviour does not match the spoken desire. For example, highlighting to the manager that the team are ready to self-organise. Be aware of the related backfire effect. If you push someone too hard it will further reinforce the held beliefs creating further dissonance.

Denial - "We have already changed"


Ask most teams in an agile transformation and they are quick to say “We are already agile”. Teams often deny that they need to improve. Upon further discussion, this is often because the change triggers fear and guilt. Many teams I've worked with fear that they will be found out as an underperforming team and thus punished. It’s no surprise that in these cases self-defence mechanisms often trigger.

Denial Cartoon

What is a better change management approach?

Psychological Safety is critical here. If people within your organisation do not feel safe to ask for help they will deny change. Leaders should Invest time listening to employee concerns so they feel heard. After all, people don't resist change they resist coercion. The quick fix here is to pressure employees to change. This may backfire and lead to further denial.


Identity Metaphor

Agile is a value-based approach and requires people to examine their personal values. This triggers a deep identity crisis within many. For example, a manager who is asked to give up their management role and become a development team member can trigger a serious identity crisis.

We filter news and information through our identity, rejecting ideas that challenge our existing values and notions.

What is a better change management approach?

When encouraging change it is important to be aware that people are more likely to listen to those who share their values. Therefore who delivers the change message can just as important than what the message says. Robert Cialdini highlights the principle of Liking in his book about Influence:

We are more likely to agree to someones request if we know and like them

Change Management Coaching Questions

Here are some further coaching questions which might help you think of ways to overcome these barriers in your organisation:

  1. What stepping stones can you put in place between the vision and now? (Distance)

  2. What would be a more positive way to phrase this? (Doom)

  3. What success stories could I share? (Doom)

  4. What systems can I put in place that allows people to behave in ways aligned to what they know? (Dissonance)

  5. How can I be a mirror to reflect back the dissonance to people within the organisation when it occurs? (Dissonance)

  6. How can I make teams feel safe when they work with me? (Denial)

  7. Who could support me in sharing the message with the organisation? (iDentiy)

The biases

The biases mentioned in this blog are listed here:

I strongly recommend listening to this podcast which expands upon the 5 D's in a Climate Change context


bottom of page