The Personal Dynamics of Change

Posted by Audra Proctor


When J.P. Garnier, the former CEO and Chairman of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), was interviewed about executing change, he said, “Getting people to change – one by one – is the only way to change organizations. After all, every change is personal”

Garnier did a great job in describing the core issue in organizational change. In business, where complexity is often admired over simplicity, it can be tempting to think about big concepts – like change programs, roll outs, re-engineering, outsourcing – as being the crux of successful change.  As such, it is all too easy to forget the reality: that it is the people involved in the change who need to adapt and evolve to make that change successful.

Change is no longer a one-off isolated event. Individuals within organizations are being asked to deal with multiple changes that reach into all aspects of their lives. New IT systems, new customer service processes, new organizational structures, new management, new finance procedures – you name it, someone is going to change it. And this doesn’t include the changes people have to deal with in their personal lives. The aggregate result for many people is an overwhelming amount of change.

There is so much more change than there ever used to be. And it’s not just the speed and amount of change that’s making a difference.  Advancing technology renders innovations obsolete very quickly; readily accessible information means the customer is more discerning and demands better service, higher quality and reasonable prices. For many businesses competition is no longer limited to geographical location.

On top of all that, society is changing. Twenty-five years ago a “job for life” was normal. Thirty years of service and a gold watch were commonplace. Today the average person will change jobs several times and is even likely to change careers, locations and/or employment status during their working life. The way you interact with society and how you consume has also changed and will almost certainly continue to do so.

In the late 1990's we were reassured by various “gurus” and motivational speakers that we shouldn’t worry too much about the increasing amount of change because human beings were built for change. In fact, we should learn to love it through the “simple” step of changing our mindset. The problem is that most of us don’t love change – especially the disruptive, uncontrollable variety.

We’re all control freaks

The truth is, we don’t really like major change very much at all. Most people prefer the status quo or changing slowly at their own pace. Human beings have been evolving for millions of years. The new field of scientific research known as evolutionary psychology holds that while we inhabit a thoroughly modern world of technological innovation, exploration and almost constant change we do so with the ingrained mentality of our Stone Age ancestors. In other words, we may have taken the man out of the Stone Age, but we have not taken the Stone Age out of the man.

So while our basic human hard-wiring hasn’t changed much, our need to deal with change has – even over two or three generations. And that has repercussions.

Our work demonstrates what social science has long believed to be true – people have a very strong control orientation. We are innately driven to seek and find control over our lives. We gain a sense of comfort and well-being from the certainty we perceive and when those perceptions are rocked, we are rocked. Think of change as disrupting our perception of control. Change often makes us feel as though we are losing control and that sensation makes us instinctively resist whatever we perceive is happening to us.

We are therefore often not reacting to the change itself but to what that change brings and the impact it may have on us. We may want to move house, for example, but the disruption that comes with that move causes us to delay action. The idea of having to spend countless Saturday mornings looking at possible houses, dealing with lawyers, getting the funding approved from the bank, finding new schools for the kids, working out a new commute to the office, joining new clubs and then packing and unpacking can be overwhelming.

The control issue is vitally important to change agents. You should never under-estimate its importance. In his book 59 Seconds Professor Richard Wiseman quotes the work of Ellen Langer at Harvard University:

“Half of the residents in a nursing home were given a houseplant and asked to look after it while the other half were given an identical plant but told that the staff would take responsibility for it. Six months later, the residents who had been robbed of even this small amount of control over their lives were significantly less happy, healthy and active than the others. Even more distressingly, 30 per cent of residents who had not looked after their plant had died, compared to 15 per cent of those who had been allowed to exercise such control. The message is clear – those who do not feel in control of their lives are less successful, and less psychologically and physically healthy, than those who do feel in control.”

Don’t surprise people!

Once you see change through the lens of control you can begin to appreciate what happens to people when you announce changes. This is particularly true when you announce changes that they weren’t expecting.

Change disrupts the strong conscious or unconscious feelings of control that people develop in the status quo or current state. Consequently people in the midst of change often feel uncertain and fearful. They are worried that they may lack the capacity to change; they may have so many other changes going on that they simply don’t have the capacity to cope with more. They may also be worried about not having the necessary skills. The idea of learning a new way of operating can cause discomfort, as people are often unsure if they still possess the competencies they will need to pull it off. In addition, they may lack the confidence that they will be able to operate in the new way. People usually build up a certain level of confidence in the way they work now; it can shake their confidence if they have to unlearn all of that and operate in a new way. And they will be uncomfortable with new ways of working and new working relationships; there is a level of comfort in being able to do your job well enough not to cause any stress. Plus, when tasks and responsibilities change, working relationships can be altered; people often lose established relationships and worry about how new ones will work.

Unfreeze – change – freeze

In the 1940's, psychologist Kurt Lewin explained that there were three basic stages to the personal change process, and his theory has formed the basis of our understanding of how people adapt to change ever since. Lewin’s model shows how people move through three distinct stages:

  1. Unfreezing
  2. Change
  3. Freezing

The first part is, as the name would suggest, an unfreezing or thawing of the old way. People in the organization are made aware of the need for change. They are being asked to effectively unlearn old ways. Here natural defense mechanisms have to be bypassed and people need to be reassured about the validity and necessity of the change.

The second stage is the actual change, where people experiment with the new ways of working or behaving. This is typically a confusing time of transition. Those in this stage know something is different and they are heading somewhere new, but are as yet unclear what that final destination will actually be like.

The third and final stage is the refreezing, where people employ new skills and attitudes and are rewarded by the organization. Here the new way becomes the norm and a level of comfort returns to the individuals involved. “Freezing” implies the end of the process as the change is solidified into daily practice, but this is not what Lewin intended. He saw the three stages as a continuous process of unfreezing, changing and freezing, during which one set of changes is constantly followed by another set of changes.

Turbulent transitions

How deep or how difficult the transition from current state to future state is depends on the change and the individuals involved in that change, plus the amount and complexity of change they are being expected to handle.

In her book On Death and Dying, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described the “five stages of grief” model. These are the stages that people go through when diagnosed with a terminal illness and facing death. Her five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

This insightful model was later built upon and developed by industrial psychologists who recognized the correlation between the grief stages and the processes people go through when confronted with change. Subsequent models added additional stages to make it easier to use in an organizational setting.

  • Shock: “I didn’t see that coming.”
  • Denial: “Oh, look, it won’t affect me anyway.” “If I keep my head down it will blow over and we can get back to normal.”
  • Anger: “Not another change initiative.” “Why can’t they just leave it alone; it’s never going to work, anyway!” “They have no idea what goes on at the moment and now they want to change it.” “I don’t have time.”
  • Bargaining: “If I take on that extra task you wanted me to do, can I be exempt from the change?”
  • Adapting: “This doesn’t look like it’s going away, so I am going to have to make some changes.” “I’ll just make some little changes and that will make it easier.”
  • Testing: “Well, this is actually easier than the old way now I’ve got the hang of it.” “It does save me time and it’s not that hard to use, so maybe I’ll give it a go.”
  • Acceptance: “OK, I can see the benefits of the change. It was worth the investment and it’s made my life easier.” “I can get access to the information I need much faster with this change and that’s helped me do my job better.”

How smooth this path is depends on how big the change is and how much resistance you meet on the journey. As we’ve discovered, human beings aren’t that crazy about change. We like to know where we are in the world; we like to know what we are doing and to feel confident that we can do what is asked of us. When that certainty is challenged we will instinctively resist it.

Resistance is natural

Resistance is the behavioral consequence when someone feels that they have lost control of a situation. If someone believes that they are losing control they will instinctively “slam on the brakes”, and once this has happened it can be extremely difficult to create any acceleration.


If someone feels that their level of understanding or comfort is being threatened and they are not sure what will happen to them, they start resisting. And, generally speaking, the greater the level of disruption to them the higher the level of resistance that results. It’s important to understand that resistance is a natural part of the process. You should educate your managers so that they navigate it rather than waste time and energy trying to eradicate it. A key indicator of success will be your managers’ ability to help people to adapt to change.

I was running a workshop a few years ago and a sales manager told me that her people had simply gone through too much change: “They just aren’t interested any more. Many of them are looking for jobs in other companies – where ‘the grass is greener’ – and others are at work but not really present.” Daryl Conner, author of Managing at the Speed of Change, describes this state as being like a bath sponge that’s already full of water. No matter how much more water you pour onto the sponge, no more will be assimilated.

Most of us have a fairly fixed capacity for change. We may differ in our capacity to accept and assimilate change. But we all have a ceiling. In other words, we all have a limit to the amount of change we can handle at any given time. This limit is made up of both personal changes and work-driven changes.

If individuals have a finite capacity for change and organizations are simply collections of individuals, then it’s safe to assume that organizations also have a finite capacity for change. organizations are, after all, the aggregate of the people who work there.

The main cause of this problem, in our experience, is what is sometimes called “perpetual loading”. organizations keep constantly piling on one change after another. These changes are often complex, overlapping and come quickly one after the other. Employees become worn down by the continuous change. This is compounded by the lack of respite, so employees have little opportunity to recover their capacity.  A recent survey published in the Harvard Business Review reported that 86 per cent of employees complained that their firms didn’t allow enough time for reflection and regeneration after stressful phases (of change). With little time to recover and poor line of sight to the end of the turmoil, employees become unengaged and dispirited. More than anything they are suffering from “change fatigue”. One of our observations, incidentally, is that you see this fatigue in executives as well as front-line workers.

Change often has positive outcomes for people

It’s very easy, when we talk about change, control and resistance, to see change as an experience that has no positive results. It’s all just uncomfortable and disruptive. But we learn and adapt through change. Like many people, when I look back on my life it’s often been the most difficult changes which have taught and helped me the most.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychology professor at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, writes in his classic book Flow:

“Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile… Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur… Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes if can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experience adds up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”

Change can be an exciting time of learning and reinvention. Resilient people grasp that opportunity and use the experience to propel them forward.

Change really does happen “one person at a time”. It’s easy, even convenient, to forget about the people – but if you want beneficial implemented change instead of expensive failed or installed change then you simply can’t. My observation, over the years, is that very often the difference between installed and implemented change is down to the leader’s willingness to embrace this simple reality. People are always the key to successful change. Very often, you can achieve installation with brute force and ignorance but it takes coordination and cooperation to achieve ownership where the change delivers all its promise. Very often, leaders who are not good at achieving implementation find ways to ignore this advice. You’ll hear them say things like “Our people are very bright so they will just get it”, “They will have to do it, no choice” or “This is just an IT change.” My advice to you is to be very careful about proceeding with change if leaders have this mindset. Help them understand how the change is going to impact on people and how they are likely to react to the change before you move forward.


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Tags: change communications, effective change leadership, organizational change, organizational change managaement, successful change management, organizational transformation, changemanagement, digitaltransformation, starting a change project

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