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2022 Retrospective: Navigating the Human Experience of Change

human reactions to change

Continuing my 2022 thoughts from last week’s, one thing remains true: People don’t fear change; they fear loss (to quote Ronald Heifetz). Even though we fear change, it’s one of the things humans are excellent at. We’re constantly evolving.

People don't fear change; they fear loss Click To Tweet

Dealing with change is exhausting for everyone involved. For new things to come in, we must say goodbye to old ones. And resistance to change also means fatigue. How can you, as a leader, better understand change and how to manage it for yourself and your team?

Turn Down the Heat in Times of Change

When leading through times of change, we coach many leaders to turn their attention to ways to reduce the heat on their team members.

To decrease heat, it’s often about resourcing differently and back-filling areas where team members may need additional support:

  • Look at problems as projects.
  • Whiteboard out anything and everything your team members are facing.
  • Figure out the priorities and delegate them to someone with those strengths.
  • Hire a mentor or vendor to help if needed.
  • Ensure people don’t feel alone by solving problems together and resourcing them properly.
  • Sometimes it’s as simple as getting alignment on an initiative and a deadline onto paper. We’re not just going to talk about it endlessly; we’re going to take action.

How You Experience Change as a Leader May Not Mirror Your Team’s Experiences

Human Change Responses are Neural, Natural, and Inevitable

Human behaviors in periods of change are so common and natural that there are entire theories that model the anticipated pattern of behavior. These J-Curve Model of Change help to explain the impact of change, both on individuals and organizations.

The “J” Curve of Change

The J-Curve of Change, defined by Jerry Jellison, a social psychologist, and professor at the University of Southern California, is built with five human emotional and behavioral stages. People’s first responses are often shock, surprise, and even denial, so it’s essential to keep your team members informed about change before and while it’s happening.

Stage 1: Status Quo

This is your and your team’s moment on the cliff’s precipice, just before the plunge into the depths of change. At the beginning of periods of change, they may be comfortable in their existing processes and have familiar environments. When change is announced, your team will need to figure out what to expect and how it will impact them.

As a leader, you can play a vital role right at the start by keeping visibility between your team members and leadership high. Understanding your team members’ fears and keeping a close eye on incoming change will help you manage productivity and morale. This period of “Status Quo” is your moment to identify easy wins, remove barriers, and provide your team with the resources they may need to manage better what’s to come.

Stage 2: The Plunge

As you and your team plunge into the depths of the change, be prepared for productivity to plummet and for anger and fear to show up. You may notice an increase in errors and more training than usual as your team members learn the new processes or tools. Stay tuned in to your team members; they may feel that their fears about this change have come true. Team members may verbalize resistance: “This will never work,” or “What were they thinking? This is worse than before.” or even let their avoidance Elephants loose into the workplace.

Dismissive phrasing, such as, “What do you have to be nervous about?” or “You shouldn’t be nervous; you have always been a high-performer.”

Minimization can be anything from “Everyone feels like that when learning something new” to “There’s nothing to worry about.”

Negation, which usually sounds like, “Hey, it could be worse!”

Prescribing solutions, like saying, “You shouldn’t worry,” or “You just need to review the documentation again.”

Toxic positivity may sound like, “Just look at the bright side!” or “Everything happens for a reason!” A positive perspective can be helpful but can become unproductive when it’s the only perspective offered.

Walk your team and leadership through the change as often as needed to help them feel comfortable and confident. Only once you’ve created this level of psychological safety will you and your team make it through your lowest point in the J-curve: when you bottom out.

Stage 3: Bottoming Out

If you’ve managed the heat in Stage 2 well enough, your team members should start to have their fears alleviated. Your team members’ productivity should be ticking upward with fewer errors occurring. The new procedures and processes are beginning to become the new norm.

Celebrate the wins when you have them in this stage. Stay open to feedback and maintain transparency and information sharing between your team and leadership.

Stage 4: Gaining Control

From absolute bottom to a steep climb, your team should begin to accept and implement the change with exponential acceptance and positivity. Build on your team’s newfound confidence with regular reinforcement of wins as the reason for the change to be implemented and maintain growth for the rest of the J-shaped climb.

Stage 5: Change Mastery

You and your team should now be at or above your original starting place way back at “Status Quo.” Use this new phase of work to thank and congratulate your team members for their perseverance and creative thinking in implementation. When your team is fully committed to the changes, celebrate their success! Your instinct may be to want to continue to capitalize on the momentum of success – here are a few tips should you choose to do so:

Don’t gloat about how “right” you or your leadership were to implement the change.

Encourage your team members’ agency by allowing them to think strategically about improving processes even more.

Use your team’s success in implementing this change as a springboard to build initial confidence in approaching future changes.

What would you add? How have you seen change done well (and maybe not so well) in your organizations? What lessons have you learned along the way?

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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