Reactions to Change

When people encounter any kind of change, they typically progress through a series of phases. There are several frameworks that help clarify human reaction to change, but the one I use in this post—and in chapter 15 of Change Intelligence—is adapted to CQ and based on the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who studied human reactions to death and dying. She discovered that not everyone, but many people, progressed through a similar set of thoughts, perceptions, and experiences. This model can be applied to understanding the human reaction to change, since most people initially perceive change as a threat, a danger—something to be feared.

Coping with change is a process that moves people from a focus on the past to a focus on the future, and from a focus on what’s happening in their external environment to a focus on what’s happening inside themselves. When they first learn of an impending change, particularly a significant one, many people go into denial. Next comes resistance, or at least what looks and feels like resistance to change leaders. If the resistance is effectively managed, people move to the exploration stage, testing the new direction. Finally, commitment occurs.

Understanding these reactions to change can help you predict them and can help you deploy effective approaches to addressing them. Doing so is fundamental to your ability to lead through any major change project.

The Denial Phase
Denial is a normal psychological defense mechanism. And when it comes to organizational change, it’s an understandable reaction, given the “program of the year” phenomenon and the discomfort that accompanies any major alteration in our work lives. Denial is a coping skill that enables us to protect ourselves. It helps us navigate all the new information we’re constantly bombarded with in modern life.

As a leader, how do you know when your people are in the denial stage? You’ll know when they say things like, “It’s no big deal” or, “It won’t affect us” or, “We’ll outlive this new manager and the changes he’s trying to make, just like the last guy corporate tried to shove down our throats.” People may avoid you, the change leader, just as they may avoid any exposure to the change process. Some go into withdrawal, seeming to hide out. Others may appear numb, confused, or off balance.

The Resistance Phase
In physics, resistance is defined as “a force that tends to oppose or retard motion.” During the resistance stage, it can appear that people are actively working in opposition to the change. However, in biology, resistance is defined as “the capacity of an organism to protect itself from harm.” One of the core themes of the CQ System is that what often seems to be resistance in others is really a symptom of us as change leaders not giving people what they need to “get” it, “want” it, or “do” it.

As a leader, how do you know when your people are in the Resistance stage? Resistance can take many forms, but it usually doesn’t require a doctorate in psychology to pick up on even subtle forms of opposition to the change. In the Resistance stage, participation is the most variable. Some become angry, and conflicts may abound. Others withdraw and seem helpless. People may grieve for what they fear will be lost—whether it’s security, status, skills, or social relationships. Some may become passive-aggressive, seeming to comply but then quietly resisting. Others may engage in overt sabotage.

The Exploration Phase
After the pain of the Resistance stage, the Exploration stage can feel like a welcome relief. Finally, people transition from working against the change to moving toward it. You hear people say things like, “Let’s try it!” Some cautiously stick their big toe in the water, while others jump right into the deep end.

Regardless of their pace of exploration, people finally seem to understand the change and display a more positive attitude toward it. Acceptance increases. Instead of feeling controlled, people experience a sense of autonomy. They begin to experiment with the change, look for creative alternatives, and unleash fresh energy.

Yet, unleashing energy can lead to challenging dynamics in the Exploration stage. People are still testing—they are still novices with respect to the new way of doing things. That can result in a period of chaos and confusion. People craft an abundance of ideas, but the very abundance can overwhelm them.

The Commitment Phase
The Commitment phase is the Holy Grail of any change initiative. Now people are “on board” and have “bought in,” and groups are “aligned” and “integrated.” People support the change through their words and their actions. Behaviors are in sync with long-range change goals, and short-term objectives that aren’t consistent with change are subordinated. Management actively invests resources to sustain the change. Cooperation and teamwork abound. People say, “We did it!” and experience the satisfaction that comes with accomplishing a challenging goal.

However, the change leader’s role isn’t over. In the Commitment phase, change leaders can deploy a variety of tactics to sustain the change and keep people moving forward.

Teams and organizations, like individuals, also go through similar stages. Collections of people often pass through the denial, resistance, exploration, and commitment phases in sync. As change leaders, it’s essential that we diagnose and deal with these dynamics at the team and organizational level as well.

And, particularly during significant changes, or when multiple changes are occurring at once, progress through the phases may not be linear. Instead, people may move from denial, to resistance, and then back to denial because they just can’t believe that yet another change is happening. They might say, “See! They switched gears again. Nothing will really change. It’s business as usual.”

It’s frighteningly easy for people to revert to the denial phase, or to stay stuck in resistance, and that’s one reason why it’s so critical for change leaders to be armed with a knowledge of CQ and all the supplementary models and methods covered in the last two chapters of Change Intelligence.

Different change leader styles (blends of Heart, Head, and Hands) display different strengths as support people through each phase of change reactions. They also have different blind spots, and would do well to deploy different tools to help them more effectively lead their people at each step in the journey.

The more tools in your toolkit, the better equipped you are to give people what they need and to help everyone—including yourself—get where they want to go.

 

Deploying the Right Change Management Tools

Is there a difference between change leadership and change management? My answer is a resounding “Yes!” Change intelligence (CQ) is about diagnosing and developing your capacity to lead change—in other words, it’s about change leadership. Change management, on the other hand, is a set of techniques that you, the change leader, can apply to a change process. As change leaders, we pick and choose the change management approaches and techniques to bring to bear on a change situation. CQ will help you as a change leader identify which change management tools you tend to gravitate toward based on your style—and which you may tend to overuse or, conversely, overlook.

The change management tools you select should be based on not only your personal leadership style but also the phase of the “change lifecycle” your team is in. From the early 1900s when Kurt Lewin introduced his unfreezing-moving-refreezing description of the change process, many models have been offered to help us understand this change lifecycle. Most are variations on a similar theme. First you plan, then you do, then you sustain. Then, you start planning the next change. This list offers the major activities that occur at each stage in the change lifecycle.

Plan

• Create vision

• Determine readiness

• Craft plan

 

Do

• Communicate

• Train

• Modify processes

Sustain

• Adapt systems

• Ensure integration

• Examine lessons learned

Change leaders have a variety of tools at their disposal, any of which they can bring to bear during the stages of the change lifecycle. If you stay mindful of the combination of your change leader style and the dynamics of the various stages, you’ll be able to select the tools to help you meet critical change challenges, especially those you may be apt to overlook, downplay, or avoid. For a full list of the best tools to the various types of change leaders can use in the different phases of the change lifecycle, check out chapter 14 of Change Intelligence.

Applying CQ: Organizations

Both individuals and teams have a change style and level of change intelligence (CQ), and the same is true of every organization. Some companies thrive on change, responding deftly to new economies, technologies, and customer expectations, while others are slow to adapt, and still others fail to change effectively and thus die.

Unfortunately, most companies fall into the latter two categories. Why do most organizations fail to achieve their lofty transformational goals? Often, it’s because one or more of these is the case:

  • Change is not championed by leaders high enough in the organization.
  • The new change is led just the same way the last change was (which probably failed or was less than stellar).
  • There is no consistent approach to change. At best, there are pockets of “strategic planning” or “change management” methodologies sprinkled throughout the organization—perhaps a project management methodology used in IT, or a change management model touted by human resources—but they are not endorsed or deployed company-wide.
  • Leaders are not trained in change leadership. At best, they may have attended a class in change management, but they have had no opportunity to understand or develop their competency as change leaders. When change happens, they’re under fire and have no time for reflection or coaching.
  • Leaders lack awareness about what encourages people to embrace change, making it almost impossible to adapt to the needs of various audiences, lessening the probability that those stakeholders will get in action consistent with the change.
  • Resistance is ignored or perceived as a force to be overcome. The focus is on doing something to the resisters, not with or for them, even when they can potentially provide valuable perspectives. Resistance continues, expands, and ultimately derails the change process.

Sound familiar? When you look at the last change project you were involved in, can you see one or more of these dynamics at work? In isolation or in combination, they are the death knell for over 70 percent of major change initiatives. When these projects fail, the investment is wasted, employee cynicism grows, and loyalty and trust are eroded.

Just as for individuals and teams, an organization’s CQ can grow over time. Individuals can become more powerful change leaders through diagnosing and developing their own CQ, and teams can become more impactful in leading a change initiative through a CQ-based team-building experience. In the same way, the more CQ is infused into an organization—layered up, down, and across it—the more positive, predictable, and pervasive the company’s results will be.

CQ at the organizational level isn’t an add-on program, another task to complete, or another box to check. Rather, it is a model and mindset that empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to fundamentally alter the way they lead any kind of change initiative. When deployed effectively, the CQ approach becomes “how we do change in this organization,” not just an appendage that’s sometimes used and sometimes isn’t. Companies that use the CQ System in this way find that it becomes a common language and a compass that points the way toward promising new outcomes.

Once members of an organization understand that they need to inspire the Heart, engage the Head, and help the Hands in each and every change initiative, they can employ a variety of other tools to heighten their change intelligence. Are executives committed to sponsoring the change? Perhaps a Leadership Alignment tool can help (to inspire the Heart). Are managers aware of the change and informed sufficiently so they can cascade the message to the troops? Perhaps they can utilize communication-planning methodologies (to engage the Head). Are frontline employees trained to use the new technology? Supervisors can deploy a learning plan (to help the Hands). In this way, CQ enables appropriate integration of methodologies from a variety of disciplines, spanning from change management to project planning and beyond.

Without an understanding of CQ, these types of tools are often deployed slavishly, to every project, whether they are needed or not. Or they are not used at all or not at the right time or in the right ways. Knowledge of CQ alerts leaders to when and how these supplemental approaches may make a positive difference. Furthermore, once a common toolkit of methodologies is installed across the system, everyone—from executives to the front line—will be singing off the same sheet of music, so to speak. No longer will helpful tools be used haphazardly; instead, everyone will be working in clearly understood and consistent ways to make the change come to life.

To paraphrase a TV commercial, CQ doesn’t do change, it helps you do change better. The CQ System helps leaders integrate additional tools at the right time in the right way to ensure that everyone is on the same productive path toward real organizational change.

To put the CQ System to work in your company and enhance its ability to lead change, you need to:

  • Start at the top.
  • Develop change leaders at all levels. Provide formal training as well as manager and peer coaching.
  • Cascade down and move across the organization. Plant many seeds.
  • Utilize the CQ methods and tools to develop a consistent language and approach to change.
  • Integrate other change methodologies to develop a system-wide change toolkit.
  • Avoid labeling initiatives as “programs.” Change is constant and ubiquitous. Treat change like a way of life, which it is.
  • Practice courageous conversations. As Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson remind us in their book The One Minute Manager, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Get feedback and feedforward (ala Marshall Goldsmith), from above and below.

If you regularly revisit these strategies and apply them in your organization, you’ll soon begin to see the benefits of the CQ System across the company: change happens with less resistance and strife, becomes part of the organization’s essence (rather than evaporating after a short period of time and leaving you short on results), and leads to positive outcomes at every level.