The four Stages of Change

The process of change will go more smoothly if people understand the psychology of change. I like a business adaptation of grief counseling, where reacting to change is broken into four segments: Anticipating, Ending, Transition, and Beginning.


This is the "fat, dumb and happy" state in the old paradigm. You are scarcely aware of the impending need for change. Ultimately, through some hints, you become aware of a threat to the old way of being. Denial is typical at this point. You hope the problem will go away and that your invested stake in the current paradigm is safe. For example, in the late 1960's, managers at Dietzgen Company, makers of slide rules, must have felt that way when Hewlett Packard introduced the new handheld calculators.


A new beginning requires that something must end. In this phase, you become fearful of loss. You see a necessity to move out of your comfort zone and that's scary. People often become sad or depressed in this phase and feel helpless, knowing a change is occurring, but longing for the days when the old ways sustained them. This phase is often compared to a death and, frequently, in the corporate world, it is a death. People need to grieve for what is ending. Leaders who understand and compassionately assist in this grief process enable the change to move more quickly. By allowing people to acknowledge their pain and express it, the leader gently moves people toward the next phase. Those who don't, pay a large price later in lack of commitment or other negative consequences. This is one area where overdoing the positive outlook, discussed in the previous chapter, can cause resentment.


This is the chaos and turmoil normally associated with change. In this phase, people jockey for a better position in the new paradigm. Bargaining or rationalizing is common in the form of: "If we have to move to a different building, at least can I get a bigger office or a closer parking space?" Rumors and speculation abound in this phase and information management becomes a real issue. Often anger or hostility are displayed in the transition as people, finally resolved to their fate, lash out at the injustice of it. Some still manifest denial of the transition, while others choose sides in the political chaos. During the transition, the leader's skill is most needed and most tested. There needs to be clear focus on the vision as people deal with the confusion and let go of the past.


Finally people begin to accept the new way. When you build stake in the new processes, people enroll, sometimes with delight and sometimes begrudgingly. Slowly the team begins to rebuild enthusiasm and eventually starts performing in the new paradigm.

People need to understand these phases because, with that knowledge, and the skill of a good leader, the time to make the full transition can be shortened. For example, I have seen teams make it through a difficult change that normally would take 6 months in about 6 days because they were aware and managing the phases. It helps people to know the grief they feel in the ending stage will be followed by better days. They tend to arrive at the transition more quickly. Also, if they realize that the anger experienced in transition is normal, something that needs to be vented, it becomes less distracting. That is a huge advantage because it allows some stability in the new paradigm before the need for another change is evident. Groups that are efficient at getting through the steps have a natural competitive advantage.


Robert Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Incorporated, an organization dedicated to development of leaders. He has spoken on leadership topics and the development of trust in numerous venues across the country. He is author of three leadership books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for ProfessionalsUnderstanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  His ability to communicate pragmatic approach...

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