Why Change Leaders Should Embrace the Change Curve

Even though employees understand the need to change, it still invokes the fear of the unknown in them. Whatever the reason for change and no matter who they are, people will go through a fairly standard set of emotional responses when experiencing it. Even when experiencing positive changes, people will still go through an adjustment period that can cause discomfort. When leaders can identify the pain points of their team and help employees navigate through the curve faster, change can begin to benefit the organization faster as well. After all, organizations must transform to stay competitive and profitable and change is the one constant in life, right? If that’s true, then why do 70 percent of all change initiatives fail? 

Shock & Denial

The change curve begins with shock. As a change is initially announced, employees get stunned, resort to denial, and act disconnected. They hold on tightly to the way things have always been done and as a result, there can be a steep decline in productivity. 

“Reinforcing concepts and modeling expectations will help cement the change into the company’s culture. Recognize even the smallest wins along the way and people will want to join in the celebration, slowly but surely.”

At this early stage, change leaders need to offer support and reassurance, highlighting the need for the change and how it aligns with the company’s vision and supports the overall strategy. A pitfall of many is to ignore employees as they are experiencing this and assume employees will come around on their own. Clear and constant communication is vital in these early stages.

Frustration & Depression

If not handled well, these next stages can be extremely disruptive to an organization since employees do not perform well when they are in these emotional states. Individuals can become angry and divisive and start blaming others for the changes taking place, before blaming themselves for the change. They often feel lost and experience a period of self-reflection, wondering if they should start job searching. In this stage, employees will find it difficult to focus and stay motivated.

During these stages, change leaders need to keep their ears and eyes open for the potential barriers that may slow down change. Active listening and observing are key components to allowing employees to feel heard and valued when they are in this delicate state of mind. Training will also be a critical piece in helping people emerge from these stages. It will be essential that personalized employee training programs are ready and available to help bridge existing gaps and build confidence.

Acceptance, Exploration, & Commitment

This is when the rewards of change management start to be felt. As time passes, people generally come around and accept the change, although it may take much longer for some than others. Once they feel even the slightest connection with the change, they will begin to dip their toes in the water and begin exploring. They will begin to see themselves as a part of the change and can now visualize what the benefits of the change are. Once they fully accept the change, they begin replacing old habits with new ones to support the change.

As a change agent, it is critical to recognize and reward the efforts made at this juncture. Reinforcing concepts and modeling expectations will help cement the change into the company’s culture. Recognize even the smallest wins along the way and people will want to join in the celebration, slowly but surely.

Marry the Curve & the Management

Anyone can enhance their ability to lead through change when they understand the change curve. It doesn’t matter what theory or change model a leader adheres to – ADKAR, Kotter’s, Lewin’s – the goal is the same. Change leaders are called on to help reduce the time it takes to transition from the organization’s current state to a future desired state. Understanding that employees may advance (and regress) along the change curve at different paces while expressing a wide range of emotions can spark a proactive approach from leadership. 

Remove Barriers

If the first four stages of the change curve are not approached with thoughtfulness and care, obstacles will show up in the form of rumors, gossip, negativity, and distrust. Rather than waiting for these barriers to go up, leaders can get ahead of them and remove each brick by identifying key stakeholders who may help or hinder the success of change management, which is critical in making this happen. Identifying people to their interest level and influence in the organization can help. Placing these people into four buckets can help - bystanders, listeners, drivers, and blockers.

First, there are bystanders. These people have low interest and little influence but are still a vital part of the organization. Keep them informed at 30,000 feet. Listeners may not have a lot of influence but the change may require them to complete their jobs differently. Address all concerns with this group early on. Drivers consist of those who have both the greatest influence and interest in the change. This is a core group of decision-makers, thought-leaders, and needs to be involved strongly at each step of the change process. They will often be sponsors and communicators of the change, so your relationship with them is critical. Lastly, blockers are the people who may create unnecessary or unexpected barriers to change. They tend to gossip, stir the pot and can be highly skeptical and vocal. Know who these people are right out of the gate and engage with them as required – keeping them involved at a high level may be enough for them to feel valued and heard.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of the bucket or the change-curve stage, listen and understand objections, show the benefits in a real and tangible way and what’s in it for them (WIIFM), and provide simple, clear choices and consequences. Understanding the change curve helps leaders understand the personal psychology of the change process. Without people, the process fails 70 percent of the time, to be exact.