No digital transformation project is guaranteed to succeed. The reason that many fail is not because of technology, but rather a lack of motivation and understanding on the part of leaders and employees. At Clearbridge Mobile, for example, the most challenging parts of our transformation were centered on training, skill sets, and eliciting buy-in from our employees.

Digital transformation and the human factor

The key to digital transformation success in 2020 and beyond lies with an organization’s ability to change not only its technology stack but also the attitude and mindset of its employees and leaders. For most organizations, the human aspects of change will be a greater challenge than the technology.

Let’s look at three of the most common human barriers to successful digital transformation and explore how emotionally intelligent leaders can overcome them.

1. Inertia

Inertia is defined as “a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.” Many business leaders don’t recognize that their environment and industry are changing until it’s too late. This is particularly common when things are going well: If everything is working and the company is making profits, employees might even question your decision to transform based on industry trends.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

However, inaction is the arguably biggest barrier to a successful transformation. If you wait until there is a crisis, it might be too late to transform effectively. If you don’t see the need for change and aren’t being proactive, your competitors will fill the void by providing the services your customers expect and demand.

If you wait until there is a crisis, it might be too late for digital transformation.

How to apply emotional intelligence:

Address inertia directly by communicating to employees that current success does not necessarily guarantee future success. Leaders with emotional intelligence can share their passion for the work being done and motivate others to shift from resistance to acceptance. Paint an aspirational view of the future to deter resistance and move beyond the “things have always been done this way” mentality.

2. Self-doubt

Every organization that has successfully implemented a digital transformation project can attribute that success, at least in part, to leaders who fully believe in and support the transformation. But when those who are responsible for driving change have doubts, transformation almost always fails.

Even if leaders understand that change needs to happen, they may lack confidence in their ability to successfully drive it. Such self-doubt may result from previous negative experiences or even failure with transformation projects. Doubt can be one of the hardest barriers to overcome.

How to apply emotional intelligence:

Emotionally intelligent leaders usually also have a high level of self-awareness, or the ability to recognize and understand personal moods and emotions and how they affect others. Self-awareness plays a large role in combating self-doubt.

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that in times of uncertainty, team members look to leaders for reassurance.

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that in times of uncertainty, team members look to leaders for reassurance. Rather than doubting your ability to guide a transformation, apply your insights from previous experiences (even failures) to your current transformation project.

Remember, successful digital transformation depends on your organization’s ability to fail fast, learn, and improve. If a previous effort failed due to lack of employee buy-in, for example, invest in more coaching and training to ensure that everyone clearly understands the vision for the organization.

3. Cynicism

Perhaps the trickiest challenge to successful transformation involves cynics – team members or even other leaders who refuse to get on board. Every project will inevitably run into issues that will impact the direction of the transformation, and cynics will point to these problems to call out flaws in planning, execution, and leadership. Using challenges and small failures to reinforce their distrust, cynics will try to influence their colleagues – and without buy-in from everyone on your team, your transformation cannot succeed.

How to apply emotional intelligence:

Empathy is another critical quality that emotionally intelligent leaders possess, and it can help overcome the cynicism barrier. Empathetic leaders are conscious of all team members and make sure that everyone feels heard. This helps all team members – including the cynics – find common ground and work toward a shared goal.


Just as cynics can influence other members of an organization, early adopters and champions of change can do the same. Identify the supportive members of your team and encourage them to educate and influence colleagues in implementing your transformation strategy.

Leaders who exhibit high emotional intelligence through self-awareness, self-motivation, empathy, and other such qualities will be best positioned to foster digital transformation and build a more innovative organization.

[Learn more: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]