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.