(Digital) Transformation Processes – Why Managers Block Change and What to Do About It

What drives executives to block digital transformation

Why do some executives block digital transformation? We show the cause and give tips on what to do about it to drive digitization forward.

Change processes are one thing, whether they are digital or not. In every company, there is at least one person at the management level who gets in the way. As an HR leader, you’ve probably wished for a magic wand to change the mindset of managers and executives quickly and easily.

Unfortunately, the magic wand doesn’t really exist, but in this article you will find a scientifically sound and practicable approach on how to better manage the human factor in digitization processes. Anyone who read my last article on why digitization is not just about IT will probably agree that technology and software are really just a means to an end in these processes.

So let’s put aside the whole IT and “digital” thing and get to the core of what “digital transformation” is really about: CHANGE.

You are probably one of those people who are open to change and new ideas, and you see change processes as an exciting opportunity rather than a threat (you don’t work in HR for nothing).

“Technology and software are only a means to an end. Digital transformation is all about change.”

But this probably also means that you find it difficult to accept an uncomfortable truth: There are intelligent and excellently qualified people in top positions in your company who are slowing down or even blocking the change processes you have initiated. How can this be?

Why the MINDSET is the foundation of all change.

To understand what mindset is all about, let’s take a brief excursion into cognitive science. Contrary to popular belief, the braking or blocking behavior of some executives has nothing to do with their intelligence, their position, their work tasks and areas of responsibility, or the company itself.

In my article, I wrote that when it comes to “digital transformation,” many companies focus only on the “digital” part, but leave out the actual transformation. Buying new software and investing in IT infrastructure gives the good feeling of having done something without really having to change anything.

“Change always starts first with a change in mindset.”

The real reason why changes associated with digitalization are often ignored is that change is generally not always welcome (even if we like to pretend that we are all so curious and open-minded towards everything new…). Changes challenge very personal beliefs: the own self-perception and the very personal world view. These beliefs are called “mindset”.

This means: Changes always start with a change in mindset.

Why most management consultancies for digital change processes don’t work.

Your company may have already invested a large sum in an expensive (but ultimately ineffective) one-fit-all program from a renowned consulting firm. I will now spare you another bad investment. The well-known consultancy Gartner has published a 4-step guide on mindset change for leaders in the digital age: “Digital Business requires a new mindset” ($195 for 10 pages). My advice is, for the money, go have a cold beer with your team instead.

Gartner suggests the first thing to do is create a vision to motivate the desire for change, then define capabilities and personal viewpoints, and finally patiently monitor and measure everything. There is nothing wrong with this. The steps suggested are perfectly logical and certainly promising to some degree.

But Gartner (like so many other consulting firms) overlooks the essential foundation of why and how behavior change actually happens.

The three most important things about mindset and change in business.

When it comes to effecting a change in mindset among employees and managers, we usually encounter the following three stumbling blocks.

Stumbling block No. 1 : We like bloodletting

Until the end of the 19th century, bloodletting was considered the most common medical practice for curing or preventing diseases. The idea behind it was that an excess of blood in the human body was the cause of hundreds of diseases from acne to tuberculosis. It was obvious to doctors and patients at the time that bloodletting was actually harmful, if not fatal. But against all evidence, medicine remained faithful to bloodletting for almost two thousand years.


Thomas Kuhn, an American scientist, gave an indication of the persistence of this bias in human thinking: We have a hard time with ignorance. We don’t give up on an established theory because it turns out to be wrong. We give it up only when we have a better theory with which to replace the old one.

But what does bloodletting have to do with the transformation problem?

We hold on to our established theories – in this case, our notions of success, professional performance, and leadership – even when the costs of innovation and change processes are ultimately lower than the costs of maintaining the status quo.

Stumbling block No. 2: I am successful – why should I change?

Maybe you have a great leadership training program at your company, or maybe you try to convince your leaders in conversation with hard facts and common sense. And sometimes you just want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them.

People in leadership positions are achievers and they usually have the characteristic of not liking to be controlled and manipulated. They are in the position they are in because they just don’t listen to what others think is right.

These leaders take a look at their lives and their career paths and think to themselves, “I’m successful, so I’m on the right track! And I certainly won’t change anything about this recipe for success.”

So as long as your executives measure their career success by old parameters, they will not change anything in their behavior, but will continue to try to produce their success according to old patterns.

Stumbling block #3: We are our mindset.

One of the really difficult things is that human beings identify very strongly with their own beliefs, views and opinions. They are part of our own identity. So trying to change someone’s opinion means at the same time trying to change their self-image and identity.

And this is an almost impossible undertaking. In psychology, these effects are called “cognitive dissonance.” It’s about the difference between what we believe to be true and what we identify with, and what reality actually looks like (in fact, it’s not always the same…).

And the more we believe that something is true, the less we are able to consider the opposite – even if pure logic and clear evidence show that we are wrong. This effect of “cognitive dissonance” is so strong that we filter all information we receive from outside according to our own mindset.

How to get people to think differently.

We all wish we could – to be able to simply change someone’s views and opinions. But as mentioned above: that is simply not possible. We cannot change people.

Just as we can’t “prove” them wrong. Particularly in the context of digitization processes, where a lot of new things happen in the company, and thus diffuse fears and uncertainties often arise, employees often cling all the more to the old.

“We can’t change people. We can only help them change what they themselves want to change.”

There are three ways to do this.

1. “Ownership”

Being able to actively shape change and developments is one of the most important approaches to “changing” people’s mindsets.

Show your leaders ideas and possibilities for the future, but let them take ownership of the changes. And offer praise when the willingness to change is demonstrated (rather than when the change is accomplished).

2. A holistic approach

Very fundamentally, leaders are also just people with their own unique fears and insecurities. For example, losing power and status, doubts about being able to adapt in changing systems. Perhaps what they are being sold as an “advantage” of change does not match what they themselves would define as an “advantage”.

Or they may already be so wrapped up in change processes at home (divorce, children moving out, etc.) that they simply want stability in their work lives. Instead of trying to change your employees, maybe take a hard look first and try to figure out and understand why they are doing what they are doing and not doing what you want them to do.

3. Your own advantage

People usually only do something (and that includes changing their mindset) if you can prove to them that a change is in their own very personal interest and that they will benefit in some way.

It doesn’t matter at all how much you yourself think, or HR thinks, or the entire company thinks, that the executive will benefit from the change. Only if it is obvious to them what is in it for them, they will take a step towards change.

Der Mindset von Führungskräften ist der Schlüssel zum erfolgreichen digitalen Wandel. Aber wie kann man eine «digital-ready» Managementebene schaffen? Mit der hochspezialisierten Beratungsboutique Future Lead berät Dr. Désirée Anja Jaeger traditionsverhaftete Unternehmen beim Aufbau einer erfolgreichen HR-Strategie für das digitale Zeitalter. Sie besitzt über 10 Jahre Erfahrung in der zukunftsrelevanten Strategieentwicklung und hat eine fundierte akademische Ausbildung im Bereich HR, Psychologie und Innovation.

Comments are closed.