Change Curve

Over the past several decades, social scientists have studied how individuals react to change and manage themselves during tumultuous times. In particular, William Bridges developed a model of how people respond to change. We are building on the work of Bridges and many other organizational consultants. Our model presents the processes we have observed in organizations.

Change, whether it holds the promise of better conditions or potential challenges, is likely to be experienced as difficult by those individuals whose work life is about to be disrupted. We have observed six distinct phases people tend to go through in a change process, when they are given the opportunity to work through issues throughout the change process:

 

During the first three stages, individuals are focused on the past. They are concerned with how things used to be. During the second three stages, their attention shifts to the future. They begin considering how things might be in time to come. The intensity of the experience may vary depending on the breadth and depth of the change, how much change the organization and its people have experienced already, and how change was managed in the past.

These reactions to change are normal. While there certainly is variation in people’s experience, it is natural and can be expected that at least some employees will have some difficulty at one point or another in the change process. Not everyone goes through the same reactions at the same time. You may have employees at varying points on the curve at any given time. Generally speaking, those people who have an active role in bringing about the change will be further along on the curve than others who do not. Also, the longer a person has been grappling with the change, the greater likelihood that s/he is further along on the curve. This is particularly true if the organization is actually managing the human side of change in order to help employees adapt to new conditions and adopt the new ways of working. Moreover, research indicates that not managing or mismanaging the human side of change may have a negative, not a neutral, impact on people and organizations.

It is also important to note that everyone in an organization goes through their own process of adapting to change. Leaders and managers are not exempt. In fact, if they can approach bringing about the change with a heightened awareness of their own process, they are in a better position to help others move forward with them.

 

 

Here are descriptions of what people go through at each stage.

 

In this stage, people generally experience surprise or shock at the impending change. They may deny its coming and experience numbness, inability to focus or take action, apathy, or avoidance. Denial can be prolonged if people are not permitted to register any reactions. Some people express unusual hardiness, underestimating potential impacts and asserting a stance of invulnerability.

When it becomes apparent that the change is indeed happening, it is common for individuals to experience concern about what they might be losing, anger and frustration at having their stable work life disrupted, overwhelm at having much to do under conditions of uncertainty, sadness, and doubt about whether or not they will make it through these times.  Staff concerns often focus on questions like the following. What will happen to me? What’s in it for me? Will I still have a job? Will my job change? Will my work experience get worse, better, stay the same?  Will I get a new boss?  What will that be like?

 

Next people usually try to restore stable or familiar conditions as much as they can. It is natural to try to assert some control in turbulent times. Some people do this by trying to understand and control the world around them. Some behaviors you might observe include placing blame, complaining about the disruption, and otherwise trying to get leaders to restore life as everyone had known it. Some people withdraw and cope by removing themselves from the fray.

 

When people start to grieve actively the loss of the old ways, they begin to let go. Individuals may grieve differently. Some of the experiences people go through when grieving include feeling depressed or sad, being pessimistic about the future, having very little energy, finding it difficult to focus on work, being anxious about what might occur, and deeply missing the way things had been. Grieving the old ways and experiencing loss caused by change is a necessary step to facilitate people moving forward in new directions. Endings bring losses as well as gains.

If this stage is not well-managed, you may see some people leave the organization because the situation appears irremediable to them. Others may become resigned to living in an untenable situation and stay in the job. In a sense, these individuals have resigned but remained. Their vitality, creativity, and capacity for work is diminished. They are not in a position to make a worthwhile contribution.

 

At this stage, individuals’ interest begins to awaken. They start to see opportunities for making the change workable for them, their colleagues, and the people they serve. While they may feel wistfulness about how things used to be, their attention is now more focused on the future than on the past. They are taking on the notion that their work is changing and that they might just be in a position to make it work.

 

At this point, people explore new approaches to their work. They seek to make the situation fruitful. In the process of trying new things, they gain confidence in the change. “Maybe we can make this work” is a common sentiment expressed by people at this stage. Through experimenting, taking risks, and developing new solutions, their capacity to tolerate uncertainty and to bounce back from setbacks tends to increase. As a result, people’s outlook becomes more optimistic. They are now owning the change process and working it through.

 

Now, individuals and groups own the new world. They understand what it takes to be successful and are performing well. They work through kinks in the new systems quickly and with good will. The desired outcomes are clear at every level. Commitment and energy are high. People work together to take the organization and their shared work to new levels.

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