Updated: May 28, 2021
You've invested time and dollars in the latest systems and processes, you've trained everyone, and you've made their lives easier (or so you think). Yet, people persist in their old ways.
Where are the business improvements you expected?
And when will the disruption subside?
The fact is that organizations don't just change because of new systems, processes or structures. They change because the people within the organization adapt and change too. Only when people have made their own personal transitions can an organization truly reap the benefits of change.
Change is a complex endeavour — any announcement of change initiatives will trigger resistance in the organization. Good leaders recognize this and prepare their employees for what's to come. The easier it is for your team to adapt, the easier it will be for the organization to advance successfully.
The Change Curve is a popular and influential model used to understand the stages of personal transition and organizational change. It helps you predict how people will react to change so that you can help them make their own personal transitions and make sure that they have the help and support they need.
The Change Curve model describes the six stages most people go through as they adjust to change:
Stage One: Shock/Denial
Here, people refuse to accept the news. This can be characterized by people burying their head in the sand, pretending that the change hasn't happened or just generally disengaging with change altogether. At this point, the curve lifts, as this stage raises our morale as we tell ourselves that nothing has changed.
Stage Two: Anger
The curve then sinks low again as people start to experience anger. This can manifest itself differently, sometimes with people expressing outrage at various things around the change. This could include people starting arguments with others, breaking the rules and even 'lashing out. This is a very visible stage, and you may have seen people expressing their anger as part of their reaction to the pandemic and its implications.
Stage Three: Bargaining
The third stage is where we start to engage with the process, but not in a constructive way. Here, people start to have trade-offs. There's still an element of denial here as this bargaining can sometimes be unrealistic and often about trying to minimize the impact of the change on themselves. People might just hold onto their old way with some tweaks around the edges to make it seem like they're adapting, without making any real changes to the way they work, for example.
Stage Four: Depression and Confusion
This is the lowest point of the change curve, where people feel the darkest of emotions. They can become withdrawn at this point and not want to engage at all. It's common for people to retreat into themselves and start withdrawing from social contact. There is a tendency for people to become fixated on minor issues at this stage.
Stage Five: Acceptance
During stage five, the curve rises vertically into acceptance. This stage is where people start to understand and accept the change correctly. As a result, morale and performance begin to improve at this point. Once people reach the acceptance stage, they may start to engage more in the process. This may include asking questions or starting to make some small but genuine changes in their behaviour.
Stage Six: Problem Solving/Meaning
The final stage is where we move into a more constructive and positive mindset. Here, people start to engage with the change meaningfully. They may begin to ask themselves what opportunities there are and how they can make the best of the situation. In a grief situation, this is often described as finding meaning. The final stage is a change in mindset to adjust to the new way and look for its positives.
How to move your people through the Change Curve
When people are lost in a sea of emotions due to a disruptive change, there are counter-measures you can take that will help you make sense of what to do next.
Start by creating a big visible room to manage the transformation program and create a 'change canvas' with the executives. On flip chart paper, write down why this change is happening, who is affected, and the benefits. Next, put up a "feedback" area next to these three statements, and let employees poke holes in each of them. This gets executives and the change team feedback, and because it's anonymous, it'll be helpful!
Establish an open and honest dialogue about the change. Sometimes when people feel frustrated, they need to be listened to. Don't worry about having a solid plan and outcomes from those sessions. If people want to complain, let them!
Understand what is holding people back from trying new practices. Motivation isn't everything; sometimes, people need to develop capability first but look for what motivates different people.
This stage is perfect for the "safe to fail" phrase. Build deliberate slack time to let people practice new skills. Innovation and collaboration don't happen by chance; you need to enable it as a leader or manager.
Get teams together to share stories. Encourage teams to learn from each other.
Everyone has different preferences regarding how they like to be communicated with and how they process information; therefore, understanding the different personality types within your team can have a massive impact on how you can support them through the change process.
Listen to your people one on one, let them vent, don't react, keep calm. Don't give them a platform to get into a 'group think' (i.e. consider whether or not to launch the change at a meeting). Instead, write to everyone explaining what's going to happen and the business rationale behind the change and the benefits. Invite people to come and see you or their line manager. Show them the details.
Arrange change workshops to work out or show the processes involved and the exact detail of roles. Brainstorm ideas to get engagement.
Stabilize and capture learning. Start to look for the benefits of the change, which feedback into the team or organization.
As Someone needing to make changes within your organization, the challenge is to get the systems, process, and structures right and help and support people through these individual transitions, which can sometimes be intensely traumatic and involve loss of power and prestige. The easier you can make this journey for people, the sooner your organization will benefit, and the more likely you are to be successful.