3 Lessons Science Can Teach Leaders About Successful Change Management

Does your industry lay claim to one of those viral statistics suggesting that the end is nigh? In our world,

4 min. read

Does your industry lay claim to one of those viral statistics suggesting that the end is nigh? In our world, it’s this one: The average CRM adoption rate is only 26%. Scary? To some, maybe — but I see opportunity. When so many companies are doing something wrong, there’s always going to be strong interest in ones that can do it right.

That’s why the fact that 70% of change management programs fail to achieve their goals doesn’t frighten me. The statistic isn’t saying that change management is bound to fail — it simply tells us that people are doing it wrong. And that’s not surprising, right? Small businesses constitute 99.9% of America’s companies, the vast majority of which were not founded by MBAs or former consultants. Out of necessity, many first-time business owners and leaders are figuring things out as they go along. So, they shouldn’t feel any need to panic about that 70% failure rate — they just need to get educated.

Which brings us to my goal for this blog. The scientific findings highlighted below offer insight into the individual and group psychology behind change management. If you’re a leader preparing for a significant organizational change initiative, my hope is that you’ll find some useful takeaways here.


3 lessons science can teach leaders about change management:

1. It only takes 25% of a population to reverse a majority viewpoint.

As part of a recent study, “researchers sought to determine what percentage of total population a minority needs to reach the critical mass necessary to reverse a majority viewpoint.” The answer? Exactly 25%.

Here’s how the experiment worked:

Nearly 200 people were randomly assigned to independent online groups that ranged in size from 20 to 30 people. Each group was shown a picture of a face, and then tasked with naming it. Group members were expected to confer until they all agreed on a name. Afterwards, researchers “seeded” each group with a number of disruptors: People who would attempt to overturn the chosen name and convince the entire group that a different option was better. More and more disruptors were added to the group until they were able to accomplish this goal. In group after group, the “magic number” was 25%. At that threshold, the disruptors were able to convince everybody else that a new name should be chosen.

The takeaway for leaders? A vocal minority can be more powerful than a passive majority. That means you don’t necessarily need to convince your entire company of the importance of a particular initiative. If just a quarter of your employees see enough value in a proposed change that they’re willing to speak out and convince others, that should be enough. On the flip side, if a minority of your team is against the change, that could be enough to sink it. Plan accordingly.

2. Emotions are literally contagious.

Whether you were aware of it or not, you’ve probably “caught” someone else’s emotions before. Sadness, anger, happiness: According to research cited in U.S. News & World Report, “emotional contagion occurs in a matter of milliseconds.” During conversation, we naturally mimic the person we’re speaking with, including their “facial expressions, posture, body language and speech rhythms.” We do this without even noticing it — without noticing the “incremental muscle movements” our bodies and faces are making.

These unconscious movements are incredibly important, however, because they trigger our brains to feel the actual emotions they represent. That means when we’re talking with someone who’s angry, we’ll unknowingly shift our appearance and behaviors to those of an angry person — which, in turn, will make us feel angry. Crazy, right?

Leaders obviously need to be very aware of this dynamic. It doesn’t matter if your words are full of rosiness and cheer: If you’re speaking about an upcoming change initiative with crossed arms and a frown, your employees will automatically associate what you’re talking about with negative emotions.

3. Our brains need repetition to form habits.

This one probably doesn’t come as news, but the science behind it is fascinating. According to Science Daily, a learned behavior begins its life in the goal-oriented portion of the brain (“I need to figure out how to do this!”), then travels to the recognition portion (“I’ve done this before, I can do it again”). Which means a behavior can only become a habit when the brain no longer has to work towards an unfamiliar goal, and can instead go into autopilot mode.

The takeaway for leaders? In my mind, there are two. The first is that successful change requires employees to create new habits, and creating new habits requires repetition. Give them the time and training they need to make that happen. The second takeaway is perhaps even more important: Do whatever you need to help employees develop successful habits. Without proper training, your team could learn something — a new technology, say — the wrong way. Rather than solving your problems, you’ll just end up with new ones.

Have other science-based insights about change management? Share in the comments! We’d love to expand this list. 



Danielle Sutton

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