The Change Curve

In this section we look at how people may react to or cope with change, and how the impact of the learning and changes in behaviour can be evaluated using a well-tested model for evaluation.

Imagine you have invested large amounts of time, effort and money in the new systems and processes. You have trained everyone, and you have made their lives so much easier (or so you think). Yet months later, people still persist in their old ways. Where are the business improvements you expected? And when will the disruption you’re experiencing subside?

The fact is that organisations don’t just change because of new systems, processes or new organisational structures. They change because the people within the organisation accept, adapt and change too. Only when the people within it have made their own personal transitions can an organisation truly reap the benefits of change.

As someone needing to make changes within your organisation, the challenge is not only to get the systems, process and structures right, but also to help and support people through these individual transitions (which can sometimes be intensely traumatic and involve loss of power and prestige and even employment).

The easier you can make this journey for people, the sooner your organisation will benefit, and the more likely you are to be successful. However, if you get this wrong, you could be heading for failure.

The Change Curve is a popular model used to understand the stages of personal transition and organisational change. It helps you understand how people may react to change, so that you can help them make their own personal transitions, and make sure that they have the help and support they need.

Let’s look firstly at the theory behind the Change Curve. Then we can look at how you can use it to accelerate change and improve its likelihood of success. The Change Curve has been widely used in business and change management and there are many variations and adaptations. It is often attributed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, resulting from her work on personal transition in grief and bereavement. Here we’re describing major change, which may be genuinely traumatic for the people undergoing it. If change is less intense, you can adjust your approach appropriately.

The Change Curve model describes the four stages people often go through as they adjust to change. You can see this in figure 1.

When a change is first introduced, people’s initial reaction may be shock or denial as they react to the challenge to the status quo. This is stage 1 of the Change Curve.

Once the reality of the change starts to hit, people tend to react negatively and move to stage 2 of the Change Curve: They may fear the impact, feel angry and actively resist or protest against the changes. Some will wrongly fear the negative consequences of change. Others will correctly identify real threats to their position.

As a result, the organisation experiences disruption which, if not carefully managed, can quickly spiral into chaos.

For as long as people resist the change and remain at stage 2 of the Change Curve, the change will be unsuccessful, at least for the people who react in this way. This is a stressful and unpleasant stage.

For everyone, it is much healthier when you can move to stage 3 of the Change Curve, where pessimism and resistance give way to some optimism and acceptance. It’s easy just to think that people resist change out of sheer awkwardness and lack of vision. However, you need to recognise that for some, change may affect them negatively in a very real way that you may not have foreseen. For example, people who’ve developed expertise in (or have earned a position of respect from) the old way of doing things can see their positions severely undermined by change.

At stage 3 of the Change Curve, people stop focusing on what they have lost. They start to let go and accept the changes. They begin testing and exploring what the changes mean, and so learn the reality of what’s good and not so good, and how they must adapt.

By stage 4, they not only accept the changes but also start to embrace them: They rebuild their ways of working. Only when people get to this stage can the organisation can really start to reap the benefits of change.

Using the Change Curve

You can use your understanding of the Change Curve to reflect and plan how you could minimise the negative impact of the change and help people adapt more quickly to it. Your aim is to make the curve shallower and narrower, as you can see in figure 2.

As someone introducing change, you can use your understanding of the Change Curve to give individuals the information and help they need, depending on where you perceive them to be on the curve. This will help you accelerate change and increase its likelihood of success.

Suggested actions at each stage

Forum topic: Does the Change Curve ring true? Can you share your own experiences, or those of people you’ve worked with?

Click here to share your ideas and experiences.

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