…apparently a difficult question to answer!  I’ve asked this question hundreds of times to business leaders, non-profit leaders and MBA students and the answers are as varied as their backgrounds.  It stems from an age-old scenario where, during a change conversation, some brave soul stands up and asks a question to clarify the change initiative.  The room waits in anticipation as to whether the questioner will get an honest answer or be forever tagged as a resistor of change.  Having led numerous change efforts in my corporate career, I welcomed questions as I knew it would help everyone understand the change in the long run.  However, in my coaching practice I get the sense I may have been in the minority!

We have to ask why this challenge exists after many decades of change.  If we put the usual personalities and egos aside, one of the key issues is a fundamental lack of understanding of the stages of change.  It is important leaders understand that, like the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief theory, everyone goes through them when a change is announced.  Let’s explore each stage of change and see how leaders must communicate effectively during each stage.

  • Denial ~ Like the five stages of grief, the first stage of change is denial. We know someone is in denial when we hear them say things like, “Why are we trying to fix something that isn’t broken.” or “The change only affects them but not us.”  Any leader who does not anticipate this first stage of change is kidding themselves and setting the change up for failure. Humans are wired to maintain the status quo so it is only normal that this uneducated optimism should be their first reaction.  For a leader to be surprised by this reflects very poorly on the leaders’ understanding of human behavior.  Leaders must anticipate and embrace denial and work through it by over-communicating the why behind the change and allowing extra time for people to process the change.  Everyone at this point is trying to answer the question, “How does this affect me?”
  • Resistance ~ Once people realize that the change will affect them directly and that their lives will be different in some way, they resist. We know someone is in the resistance stage when we hear things like, “I told you this was a dumb idea.” or “They can’t make me change.” Things get heated during this stage because the fear of losing something becomes real.  It doesn’t matter that the new change might be even better, what matters in this stage is that something in being taken away! It is during this stage that a leader’s emotional intelligence and empathy are put to the test as this stage becomes emotionally charged to the point where people need to decide whether they are in or out of the new world order.  Be aware the active resistors are generally a good thing during this stage because they are fully engaged, emotional, but engaged.  It is the passive resistors who leaders need to pay attention to so as not to mistake silence for compliance!
  • Exploration ~ The people who come out of the resistance stage are now in the exploration stage. This stage of educated optimism is generally characterized by people saying things like, “I can work with this.” or “I am glad that is behind us.”  The danger in this stage is that it is mistaken for commitment when in fact resistance to change still exists, just not in such an overt fashion as in the resistance stage. Leaders in this stage must realize that those still with the organization could still revert to resistance.  What helps during this stage are the new people brought into the organization that replace the people who left during the resistance stage. Once again, effective communications and rewarding the new behaviors during this stage will carry the day!
  • Commitment ~ Once people are feeling like they are now more in control of their lives they are in the final stage of change, commitment. At this stage, people are saying things like, “I don’t know how we ever succeeded before.” or “This new way feels better than before.”  In most cases, a small percentage of the team or organization (change agents) will get to this phase quickly.  Smart leaders then leverage these change agents to pull through those who may still be in the exploration stage.  Ongoing effective communication and recognition of those who led the change in some way or another is crucial to the new change becoming operationalized and part of the new culture (yes, culture will have to change too!).

While the four stages of change are straightforward and easy to understand, the real issue for any leader is leading individuals simultaneously through all four stages.  In other words, the change agents will quickly get to commitment as stated above while there are those who may never get out of denial and will need to leave the organization.  Understanding where each member of the team is in the change process will help the leader understand fully when they stand and ask a question about the change whether they just need clarity or they are fully resisting the change altogether.

What stage of change are your team members in and how do you know?

Lead Well!