Organizational Transformation Is an Emotional Journey

The road is littered with failed transformation programs that were set up in the traditional way: Leaders define objectives, design a project plan, agree on KPIs, and recruit the right people. As many executives, academics, and consultants can relate to, the rate of failure in transformations is still far too high, and one that organizations can ill afford in these disruptive times.

To understand the skills, mindsets, and capabilities behind successful transformations in today’s dynamic environment, EY and Oxford University formed a research collaboration to investigate what it takes to lead a successful transformation. We surveyed 935 CXOs and 1,127 members of the workforce. Approximately 50% of them represented a successful transformation project and 50% an unsuccessful one. The respondents came from 23 countries, seven industries, and 16 sub-industry sectors. We also conducted 25 in-depth interviews with CXOs from multiple global companies. Before their interviews, each leader was asked to identify three critical turning points in their transformation. The interviews then focused on each turning point to understand when and why it happened, what actions were taken, and how they impacted the outcome of the transformation.

One of our most important findings is that, in order for transformation to be successful, leaders must approach it in ways designed to mitigate emotional harm to — and drive emotional commitment from — employees.

What makes transformations successful — and unsuccessful

In general, we found that leaders and workers started transformations at the same point emotionally: excited and optimistic. As the transformations got going, they all showed a reduction in positive emotions and an increase in negative emotions. All transformations are tough, and confidence is bound to dip. This is not only inevitable, it’s key to the transformation’s success: Heightened stress raises performance (up to a point), and leaders who learn from their

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