[IMGCAP(1)]You and two of your colleagues are returning from the firm’s annual partner retreat. You thought there were good discussions and everyone agreed on a few decisions that will really move the firm forward. You ask the others in your car what they thought. One speaks up.

“I hate these meetings. We discuss problems and talk about solutions, but then we get back and it is business as usual. Nothing ever changes around here.”  The other rider echoes the same sentiment. What you thought was positive movement is now soured. Does this sound familiar?

This scenario happens every year in many firms. Firms conduct dozens of meetings, retreats and summits where great conversations are had and decisions made —but usually nothing happens.

On the surface, it appears that no one did what they said they would do and no one ever asked.
The easy explanation is that there is no partner accountability. If partners were serious about their responsibilities and obligations in the firm, they would execute and require their staff to do the same. That may be true, but it’s also the wrong explanation. Decades of research around individual and organizational behavior have proven why people and firms don’t change and what to do about it.

Anytime there is a change initiative that requires people to behave differently, it must be handled appropriately and skillfully. Otherwise, you will be left with the “things never change” lament.

Change leaders often forget that doing something different is often regarded as negative. People become comfortable with their habits and routines to accomplish a task, so they naturally view imposed change as a threat. If change leaders don’t appreciate the significance of this reality, they will too easily minimize and dismiss the concern. The common response that “they will just have to get over it” is hardly the answer.

Another reason change efforts fall flat is that a compelling case hasn’t been made to warrant the change initiative. If people don’t experience directly the pain of the old way, why bother with changing? They are being asked to change their way of doing something because someone else has a problem with it. Many CPAs relish routine, stability and consistency, so they don’t look favorably on doing something differently…just because.

I recently saw a firm experience a problem with their staff using two different views in the software when entering tax information. It became increasingly inefficient to teach both views to new staff.

It also affected who managers and partners were willing to work with. So the leaders decided to standardize the view that everyone would use. It wasn’t a big deal, or so they thought. The reaction among those who had to change from using their view to the other was dramatic. “They don’t care about us.” “Our opinion obviously doesn’t matter.” “I’m just a hired hand.” The change leaders tried to convince them that it was good for the firm and that once they became familiar with it, they would like it better. This only made the offended parties squeal all the more.

How many change initiatives have been conducted where the required behavior change was the primary reason the initiative stalled unnecessarily or failed completely? Firm leaders experience this every time an initiative is instigated. After a while, it’s no wonder that they too sing the “nothing ever changes” refrain.

What we know from the research is that people generally have two propensities that interfere with successfully implementing a behavior change. The first is the propensity to choose comfort over discomfort. This propensity is demonstrated in simplicity bias (choosing to do something the easy way) and familiarity bias (choosing to do something the way that is known and practiced). These two biases ensure that people are comfortable in what they do.

A second propensity is to avoid fear. People will go to great lengths to avoid situations where they are unsure how it will turn out. This fear of the unknown is powerful and accompanies the fear of loss of control (the ability to determine action) and the fear of diminished status (an esteemed position of competence).

Given these two propensities, it’s no wonder that people resist change that is imposed on them. Why would change leaders expect anything different?

Change leaders would do well to understand, appreciate and respond appropriately to the human factors when proposing any initiative requiring their people to behave differently from the way they are used to performing. It’s the only way to expedite change.

This is such a needed competency that I will be co-presenting Why Your Firm Resists Change (and what to do about it) at Accounting Today’s Growth & Profitability Summit this fall. Leaders need to learn how to make things happen and overcome the “nothing ever changes” lament.

Guy Gage, LPC, CPT, is the owner of PartnersCoach, a coaching and consulting firm to professionals in private practice. He recently launched Partner-Pipeline, a new program for professional development that is designed to cultivate and develop the characteristics of high contributing partners. Guy will be leading his pre-conference workshop at this year’s Growth & Profitability Summit on November 2.