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Understanding the human side of change

Understanding the human reaction to change is vitally important when undergoing a change management process.

Often there is a focus on the actual project management of the change, but it does not fully consider the psychology of the individuals facing the change, or the differing speeds and intensity of their emotions.

As over 70 percent of our change efforts are failing, increasing our understanding of these human factors can drive successful change and deliver better outcomes for organisations.

Below are the four psychological stages of change and the strategies best suited to assist people through change.

1. Avoidance

Our first response to workplace change my be avoidance and we think ‘that’s never going to happen’ or ‘I’ve heard this before’.  At this stage, a combination of attention grabbing communication, relevant scenarios painting a picture of the change and clear milestones are required.  If these tactics do not work, a shift in the environment that prevents the old way of working is the last resort to transition people into the next stage.

2. Resistance

When we resist change it can be characterised by more emotional responses such as ‘how dare you!’ or ‘this is never going to work!’ In this stage, people need the opportunity to vent, feel acknowledged, receive reassurance, have swift follow up and see strong leadership. Without effective support, people can get stuck in the resistance stage or choose to leave the organisation or team to escape. If support and reassurance is given this can facilitate transition into the next stage.

3. Acceptance 

Acceptance is characterised by our attitude to accept the change is happening and to get on with things. In this stage, we ask many more rational and challenging questions.  Support required at this stage includes rational evidence, seeing it work in practice, inclusion in implementation discussions and progress updates. Access to a business representative who can answer questions is important to capitalise on the momentum and prevent people from slipping back.

4. Adoption

Adoption is symbolised by the change sticking and people beginning to believe ‘that is just how we do it’. Key tactics to make change stick include: access to training, on demand support from a manager or subject matter experts, feedback, formal recognition, celebrations and forums to raise new ideas, or the ability to give feedback to maintain the change.

Each person’s journey through change follows the same stages but will vary in the duration and emotional intensity. Recognition of where people are in their journey and targeting tactics appropriately can minimise resistance, deliver quicker organisational benefits and keep teams motivated, and empowered.


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Mike Allan

Mike Allan

Written by Mike Allan an Associate Director (Organisational Development) at Livingstones. Livingstones is an Industrial Relations, Organisational Development and Human Resources firm based in Brisbane. They have a team of 24 professional consultants, psychologists and advocates who provide specialist experience for client specific people solutions. Mike is an Associate Director at Livingstones he blends decades of practical commercial experience in multiple international and cultural settings with his significant academic knowledge to provide clients with insights and solutions to the most complex organisational challenges.

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