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The Hard and Soft Sides of Change Management: Q&A With Kathryn Zukof

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Why do some change initiatives fail while others succeed? How can organizations and employees handle change better? In The Hard and Soft Sides of Change Management: Tools for Managing Process and People, Kathryn Zukof offers practices and approaches to help you and your organization roll out, receive, and manage change effectively.

Why did you write this book?

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve seen change initiatives cause unnecessary pain for organizations and their employees. Promising projects that could have led to good outcomes for the organization failed to deliver the necessary results. Instead, employees emerged from change initiatives having lost trust in their organization’s leaders, with some employees maybe even feeling like they’d been betrayed. They questioned whether they could or should continue to work for the organization they used to love and feel committed to. At a minimum, they didn’t want to move full throttle ahead and support future change initiatives.

We hear this all the time—that most change efforts fail. While I have witnessed failures, I’ve also seen many change initiatives succeed. In these success stories, organizations achieved the desired outcome and employees felt excited—even proud—to be part of the efforts. The successful change initiatives were managed in a different way than the counterparts, and some simple practices distinguished the two. Drawing from success stories, I wanted to share what works so others can apply these practices and approaches. I also wanted to share what doesn’t work to help people avoid missteps.

Change at work may be disruptive, but it doesn’t always have to fail or be painful for the people affected by it. With this book, I want to help people get to success through change.

With many different change management models to choose from, is there one that you ascribe to?

There are a lot of great change management models out there—ATD’s change model, Kotter’s 8-Step Process, William Bridges’ transition model, Prosci’s ADKAR model, and others. While there’s wisdom from each of these that I’ve woven through The Hard and Soft Sides of Change Management, I don’t advocate for the adoption of a particular guiding model. This book is a practitioner’s guide that offers tools and ideas to try regardless of the model you or your organization adopts.

I’ve played just about every role there is in a change initiative—project sponsor, project leader, change management leader, member of the project team and member of the change management team, transition monitoring team member, red team member, supervisor of a team affected by change, and just a regular employee trying to make sense of a change happening in my organization. I’ve actively supported some changes and have actively resisted others, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not. I’ve learned a lot and have something to say from each of these perspectives. This book addresses change from a practical viewpoint: Here’s what’s happening on the ground and in the trenches, and here are approaches to increase your odds of success.

Is it true that most people don’t like change?

A major myth in the workplace is that people don’t like change. We often hear project leaders and change leaders say this when employees affected by a change start to grumble about what they’re experiencing. Leaders can be quick to dismiss these complaints by saying, “We all know that change is hard,” or “What can you do? People just don’t like change.” Armed with this excuse, leaders often plow ahead with their plans without considering the validity of the complaints and whether they should do anything to address them.

While changing a routine or learning something new can be a challenge, it’s wrong to assume that making the change will be distasteful and unwelcome. After all, people actively seek out changes all the time. We upgrade our cellphones, plan vacations to exotic locations, pursue promotions and apply to new jobs, and get married, for examples. We get excited about changes we think will benefit us and have chosen for ourselves. The challenge for change leaders is to maximize the benefits that employees will experience or help employees understand how the change will benefit them and their organization. Leaders also need to increase employees’ sense of choice. Maybe the employee will get to learn marketable new skills; get the opportunity to lead in new ways; be able to choose screen configurations; or get to choose when to take training or which training approach to participate in.

Are there any other statements you hear about change that trouble you?

When talking about workplace change, people often say that resistance is inevitable, so they think they can ignore it. They talk about resistance as something bad and to be tamped down. I challenge readers to change their approach to resistance. Think of resistance as a completely neutral term. It’s an opposing force that is sometimes helpful and other times not. When resistance to a workplace change occurs, try to understand where it’s coming from and consider what may help to get the resisters on board. More importantly, explore ways to use the resistance to strengthen the project.

Employees may resist a change because they believe it will damage the organization they love and that they have a moral duty to protect the organization from potential harm. While sometimes they’re misguided, they often have insights and information that, if acted upon, will help increase the odds of the change succeeding. That’s why I advocate for the use of red teams to uncover contrarian viewpoints and guide change initiatives. Many employees can speak to why a change plan will not work. Leaders need to provide employees with a safe vehicle for expressing their dissent. Leaders need to digest their concerns and act on them when it’s sensible to do so.


Do all employees benefit from the change?

Change initiatives won’t benefit every employee. Some—maybe many—employees will experience tangible or intangible losses because of the change. That doesn’t mean leaders should just shrug and ignore what people are feeling or accept their complaints as inevitable. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Leaders need to understand and empathize with the sense of loss the change may bring to their employees. They must help employees move through the period of loss as quickly as possible and perhaps even compensate employees in some way. In the book, I offer practical ways to do this.

What is one of the most common losses employees experience due to workplace change, and can anything be done about it?

A common loss is sense of competence. Change that requires employees to relearn basic processes, procedures, and technology used every day in their jobs can be disorienting. Without adequate support, employees may question whether they have what it takes to do their jobs anymore. They may wonder if they’ll ever be able to come up to speed. That fear can spiral and lead employees to start resisting what’s changing even if the change will produce real benefits for them. If employees stew in that uneasy period of incompetence for too long, they may come to expect that discomfort when another change effort is introduced, and the next one after that. Employees then begin to resist change initiatives before they’ve even started.

We all hate feeling incompetent and try to avoid that disconcerting feeling as much as possible. The challenge for change leaders is to help employees navigate through that awkward period of incompetence as quickly as possible and understand how their organization will help them rebuild their job-related competence. Perhaps they need to extend training well beyond the change project, as an example. In the chapter “Developing Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes Needed to Support the Change,” I review concrete steps organizations can take to do just that.

While loss and resistance and empathy and training fall under the soft sides of change management, what does the hard side of change management include?

In change initiatives that produce the best outcomes, leaders address soft, people-side factors while implementing project management discipline. Focusing on project management addresses the hard side. To do that, leaders must articulate the outcomes the change initiative is supposed to produce and the rationale for achieving those outcomes. They must create realistic project plans and involve the people with the right knowledge, skills, and insight in the initiative. Leaders must ensure that everyone involved understands their roles, responsibilities, and authority. They must pause periodically to assess their progress and adjust the plan along the way based on what is and isn’t working.

In the book, I show that the integration of hard and soft sides can yield better outcomes. For example, concrete steps used when creating the project plan (a hard-side activity) will help build trust and a greater sense of buy-in (a soft side goal). Likewise, steps for building advocacy for the project on the ground (a soft-side effort) can help gather information that will strengthen the project plan (a hard-side task).

Why is the collaboration between the project manager and change management leader important?

Most workplace change initiatives are led by a project leader who focuses on the hard side for tasks like creating the project charter and ensuring that project related activities move forward on schedule. Too often, soft-side tasks assigned to the change management leader are relegated to the back seat. The project is already planned and well underway before the project leader says, “Now we need some activities to build stakeholder support,” or “We need communication to make sure employees understand what’s about to happen,” or “Employees need training so they understand the new procedures.”

Leaders should not treat change management as an afterthought. When that occurs, they miss opportunities to gather information from affected employees right from the start—information that could make the difference between project plans succeeding and failing. When leaders tack on change management activities at the end of an initiative, they lose opportunities to cultivate trust and buy-in among employees who may otherwise be willing to try, adopt, and even advocate for the change. And they miss the chance for employees to acquire new skills and gain knowledge early on, maybe even inadvertently prolonging the period of incompetence employees experience. When project leaders and change-management leaders collaborate from the start, the hard and the soft sides of change are managed better, and projects have improved outcomes.


How can change leaders ensure they are involved from the beginning?

Change leaders may need to engage in some tough conversations and advocate for themselves to sit at the same table as the project manager from the beginning of the project as opposed to being added later in the process. Sometimes they may have to leverage the power that others in the organization already possess and use their influence to help get their message heard. The book includes some ideas for having those conversations and for leveraging the power of others. Of course, to earn that place at the table, leaders also need to demonstrate that they have expertise in change management and are business savvy. They need to know how and when to use change management tools and approaches for the hard and soft sides of change. And they must demonstrate that they understand the business reason for change and the steps the organization is taking to achieve the desired outcomes.

About the Author

Kathryn Zukof is a learning and organizational development practitioner and educator with more than 30 years of experience in industries ranging from manufacturing, to higher education, to technology services. She focuses on helping organizations create and implement innovative approaches to leadership development and succession management, foster an environment of continuous learning, and plan and navigate through transformational change. Before she transitioned to a career in L&OD, Kathryn held management roles in client relations, product development, and marketing in the technology services sector. Kathryn has a PhD in social psychology and an MBA in marketing. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in industrial and organizational psychology, research methods, and marketing.

About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit

The Hard and Soft Sides of Change Management: Tools for Managing Process and People
ISBN: 9781950496877 | 340 Pages | Paperback

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Kathryn Zukof, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected] or 703.683.8178.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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