People experience change in their personal and professional lives
every day. Perhaps you must travel a new traffic route due to
construction, or reschedule a meeting because your work priorities
changed. With our years of experience in dealing with change, you'd
think we would be good at accepting new things. The reality,
however, is that whether the change is positive (like a wedding) or
undesirable (like unemployment), the disruption in our routine
increases our stress level.
One way to reduce anxiety is to expand our awareness of the typical
stages and emotions experienced during change. By increasing our
knowledge we reduce the fear of the unknown. In general, the stages
of change are
- valley of despair
- try out
Through my training experience I have found that psychological
models only teach so much; an analogy makes it easier for people to
relate and incorporate learning. So let me share a change process
from my own life that you can probably relate to, either through
your own experiences or that of a girlfriend, wife, or coworker:
the yearly bathing suit search.
Every year around March, I take my annual trek to the mall to check
out the year's swimsuits. Intellectually, I know that I need to buy
a new bathing suit for all of the water activities that I will take
part in during the summer. After a quick glance at all the suits on
the rack, my internal dialog begins. "It may not be very hot this
summer. I can probably get away with wearing capris. Maybe I won't
go near the lake or out on a boat this summer. I will be working so
much, I doubt if I'll even get outside." I leave the mall
surrounded by denial that a bathing suit is needed or even wanted.
This is similar to the reaction many employees have when confronted
with a workplace change. People cling to old ways of doing things
because they are comfortable. They know what behaviors are expected
from them and what behaviors have historically been rewarded.
Denial is a way to postpone having to confront the uncomfortable
feeling of not being in control. Lying to ourselves and believing
that the change will not occur allows us to avoid questioning
whether our skills will be valued in the new environment.
Months pass. The temperature begins to rise, summer is quickly
approaching, yetI continue to fight the idea that I need to buy a
swimsuit. I try to ignore the situation and postpone making any
decisions. I go to the mall, but this time my internal dialogue
goes something like this: "Why do I even need a new bathing suit?
Maybe my five-year-old suit with the stretched-out elastic can last
another year. If I start today I can lose at least 30 pounds before
summer officially arrives, and if I buy a suit now it will be way
too big when I need it. I think I will just wait awhile and see if
I really need a new one." I spend all of my energy on coming up
with excuses and end up leaving the mall without accomplishing or
Employees demonstrate resistance across a continuum of behaviors,
from asking a million questions to remaining silent. They can even
agree with the change publicly, but continue to do exactly the same
things they were doing prior to the change. This is the stage when
you will see a reduction in productivity and declining morale.
In training classes, I point out that now is the time to reinforce
what benefits the change will bring. By expressing what is in it
for the audience, you encourage them to personalize the benefits of
the change. You also have to be realistic and recognize that with
any change there is a sense of loss and this should be acknowledged
and listened to. Empathy is important, just not to the point of
encouraging helplessness. Advise people to get involved. This
provides them with a sense of being proactive and engaged in the
change rather than simply responding to something that was thrust
Valley of Despair
With summer a few weeks away I am back at the mall, rummaging
through the racks for the right size, shape, and pattern.
Reluctantly, I grab a few bathing suits to try on. Entering the
dressing room, the fluorescent lights cause my winter white skin to
glow and the dimples of my cellulite to shine. I have finally
reached the lowest point. I am moody and angry and totally
frustrated. I consider moving to Alaska where I will never have to
wear a bathing suit again.
The Valley of Despair is the point at which employees are often
frustrated because they can only see the negative aspects of a
change. They may be feeling incompetent and lack trust in the
leadership team. Many times this is the stage where people opt out,
either physically by leaving company or emotionally by performing
At this stage you should encourage and empower people to take
action by painting a picture of the goal and helping employees to
visualize the future. People sometimes need help understanding
where they fit in the new picture. In addition, they may require
assistance in determining what steps they need to take to reach the
In the dressing room, I begin to see the light. After trying on
suit after suit I finally find one that doesn't look awful. The
color is pretty and the fit seems good. I begin to believe that
this is not too bad. Maybe I can actually buy a new bathing suit,
even though I'm still not 100 percent sold on it. I leave the store
with my purchase in hand and begin thinking that a beach picnic
might be fun.
This stage is characterized as the point of no return. There is no
turning back to the old ways. Once the critical mass has reached
this stage the rest of the employee base will follow. At this
point, employees will start contributing new ideas or thoughts on
This is the critical time when support is most needed. Support can
take a variety of forms such as training, coaching, or simply
encouragement. You need to recognize small wins and reinforce and
reward positive behavior. This encourages not only the person
receiving the recognition but also shows the broader team which
behaviors are being valued.
I know that I have reached a new high point when I am comfortable
wearing my new bathing suit out in public and have thrown away the
five-year-old, baggy suit. I look back at the previous few months
and the amount of energy I wasted trying to find the suit and
wonder what I was so worried about.
Although change is broken into phases, this is not a linear
process. One day you can feel excited about trying something new.
The next day you can be anxious about the many unknown aspects of
the change. That means there may be days when I want to move
backwards in the process and try on a different bathing suit, or
days when I don't feel comfortable wearing the one I purchased out
in public. I might even question why I decided to buy the thing.
It is a normal part of the process the move back and forth through
emotions and phases. In addition, individuals move through the
phases at their own pace. It may take me months to find a new
bathing suit and it may take someone else a few weeks, a day, or a
year. The pace and speed depends on how ingrained the behavior is,
how big the change is, and the reason behind making the change.
Even though I was frustrated and angry at times, that does not mean
buying a new suit was a bad idea. The ultimate goal of a change is
to achieve a higher level of performance than was previously
experienced. By helping yourself and others move through the phases
of change more quickly, you accelerate the time it takes for the
benefits of change to be realized.
2007 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.