Self-inflicted barriers to change

Barriers to Change

When contemplating a change management strategy, it is obviously important to understand the barriers to change in the current environment. The impact of those barriers is felt in terms of how difficult people find it to give up things but also in the way they accept the new (Bridges, 2016).

The barriers to change are manifold. The usual suspects cited include, but are not limited to:

  • The culture of the organisation being at odds with that required to support the desired future state
  • Stakeholders fearing a loss of power or self-importance
  • Resistance from employees to adopt new practices
  • Resistance from employees give up old practices
  • Lack of trust based on previous “change” experiences
  • Confusion about what the change is
  • Lack of any feeling that the change will benefit the people undergoing the change

What I have experienced in changes big and small is in addition to these types of barriers to change are a number of self-inflicted barriers created by the design characteristics of change efforts developed to remove the change to change mentioned above. As a change manager, I hate it when I’m introduced to a project which contain self-inflicted barriers to change from this non-exhaustive list.


We introduce new terms which people have to learn. For example, we decide that the home page on the intranet, which provides information and links to information about the change, needs to be called something funky, or something that fits well the theory of learning, but does not immediately resonate with the end-user. As a change manager, I now have the task of educating the end users in the new language. When this error is repeated multiple times across multiple channels of communication, I have to practically create a language class.

Sometimes it is important to introduce new terms, or to redefine old ones, as doing so brings us into line with practise proven to get better results in the industry, or are a common language in the profession or amongst customers or suppliers. Sometimes we will do it to make sure people know that things are changing. But please, please do it for a good reason. Don’t do it to be gimmicky. It makes my job harder, for no practical return. Use well known terms and explain what they mean in the context of the change.

Difficult to navigate choice

In making changes to operating systems, introducing automation, changing processes we often like the idea of giving people choice. It is important in managing change to allow people to believe that they have choices. It helps them feel that they have some control or at least, influence, over the change. However, the act of choosing must be easy to navigate. We often make the choice for people daunting and give them insufficient support in terms of knowledge and perceived time available to make informed choices. As a change manager I have to come up with approaches to overcome these barriers to change built in the design. Thankfully there are approaches which do work that I can play with (Wood, 2014).


We may seek to ensure that people have sufficient incentives to make the most appropriate choice. That they understand the “What’s in it for me of the choices they make in their language and in a context they find value in, not what we find value in. This might include the impact of their choice on, for example, their career, the ease of doing their job, the community, the environment, their family or simply social good.


We may undertake mapping of the outputs and outcomes of the change to ensure people have an understanding of what they will experience as a result of their choice. In sales terms it is the benefit of what I’m selling not the features. It is the size of photograph I can print clearly, not the megapixels of the camera. It is the ease at which I will be able to do my job, not the skills I will learn.

We can seek to ensure people understand the experience they will have based on their choice in terms which mean something to them.


We may simply set a default if no choice is made. Defaults options take advantage of the fact that many people make choices based on the least amount of effort. We can make the default option the best one for the outcomes of our change project.

Give Feedback

We may set about giving people immediate feedback on the impact of their choice. If we are clever that feedback will point them in the direction of changing their behaviour to one we want. For example, whilst we might allow a lot of freedom in the choice of passwords, by providing a feedback loop that indicates visually and immediately on the strength of a password, we can change people’s behaviour away from simple passwords to passwords we know are built on sound security principles

We can seek, where possible, to give people immediate feedback on the impact of their choices.

Expect Error

We should expect people to make errors in executing their choice. As much as possible, we need therefore to ensure that no matter what way people execute their choice, the result remains tenable.

For example, Microsoft Outlook has a feature which looks for words like ‘attached’ or ‘attachment’ within emails. If the word is found, the email client will then check to see if a file has been attached to the email. If not, a reminder pops up to ask if you intended to add an attachment before you send it.

Structure Complex Ideas

Often we think “More choice is better, right?” It must be better if I can choose five different options for adding metadata to a document. Or have five different menu choices for arriving at the same location in a system. Or have five (or more) different ways of choosing my salary package. Or … Right?

When faced with a small number of choices, people are OK reviewing each option and then making a choice based on their own preferences. However, more choice complexity is better only if it is easy to navigate. In many cases, the perception of the time I would need to spend on evaluating the choice causes me to put off making a choice and perceiving that the “new” way is difficult.

To make the process of dealing with a complex set of choices easier we have to provide people with a means of eliminating easily choices with aspects they do not like.

We can seek to help people decide on the most important features of the available options and then setting a minimum requirement to make a decision. Then they can review one or two options in detail.

Poor communication skills

Creating a list of the poor communication skills I have seen would take me a very long time to write. The point I want to make about communication is that most people underestimate the skills required to do it well and particularly the skills required to get people to change behaviour, not to merely understand.

When we communicate, people will feel something, think something and eventually do something as a result of the communication, even if what we want them to do is nothing. We have to be skilled enough to create and execute and monitor and change a communication strategy, married with our training strategy married with our performance management strategy to create an environment where people form the intention to change and are supported by their line managers to turn that intention into action.

Given human beings have so many inbuilt barriers to receiving and interpreting communications as we intended them it is a very difficult thing to get right. Human beings ability to listen is impacted by their mood, personality and upbringing. They remember first and last words more than middle words. They make up things in their head and believe it was actually said. They filter what is said based on previous experience. They filter based on their thinking preference. They infer meaning and draw conclusions based on biases built on cultural, professional, age, gender, occupational, educational and clothing stereotypes, just to name a few.

So, as a change manager, I cringe when I see communication errors including but not limited to:

  • Posters left hanging on a wall for perpetuity thus becoming part of the background furniture
  • Posters in corporate colours which do not differentiate my poster in people’s peripheral vision
  • “Talking head” videos
  • Emails designed for only one thinking preference or emails not designed at all
  • Intranet help pages buried three clicks or more from the home page
  • Policies buried in three or four pages of blurb which should be found in other documents]
  • Policy documents which contain more procedures and a standard than policy
  • Posters with multiple competing interests for the eye
  • PowerPoint slides which break every known rule and cannot possibly be seen from “up the back”
  • Procedures written in inactive language
  • Speakers whose body language is incongruent with their words
  • Speakers whose tone and pace of voice are incongruent with their words
  • Scripted videos
  • Using speakers who carry no authority for the topic. For example, using the general manager of human resources to talk about technical issues or using the CEO to talk about specific workplace issues
  • Word documents that are all text
  • Expecting people to read an eighty page report and digest it without providing them some other means of getting the main points in story form, e.g. video or PowerPoint or animation
  • One way emails for complex information

And so on….

Please use people who know what they are doing with communication. Poor communication creates more self-inflicted barriers to change than anything else I know.


Bridges, W. (2016, January 16th). Home page: William Bridges and Associates. Retrieved from William Bridges and Associates:

Wood, P. (2014, August 19th). The Six Principles of Good Choice Architecture. Retrieved from White: