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The Psychological Impacts of Change

Decorative

  

Introduction: 

Change is a very personal experience, with no two individuals sharing the exact same thoughts and feelings towards it. Despite this, everyone will have some sort of reaction, ranging from complete acceptance to complete resistance. This variation is natural, reflecting our unique perspectives and experiences. Yet, recognising that everyone's reaction evolves over time is crucial. By understanding and acknowledging our responses, we can offer better support to each other, making the journey through change a more cohesive and manageable experience for all.

Readiness for Change

Readiness for change refers to the degree to which individuals are psychologically and practically prepared to implement and support the change. Some psychological factors can impact a person's readiness for change,including: 

  • Personal values and beliefs: If the change resonates well with their personal values, they are more likely to embrace it.
  • Past experiences: Experiences with previous changes can affect attitudes towards a new change. A negative past experience can lead to resistance. 
  • Emotional response: Emotions such as fear, anxiety, excitement, or hope can determine someone's motivation to move forward or to be held back. 
  • Perceived benefits: The personal benefits one believes the change will bring to them will play a crucial role. If the benefits are clear and meaningful, an individual is more likely to be supportive.
  • Perceived risks: Similarly, if the individual percieves they will be impacts negatively with high risks, resistance might increase towards the change. 
  • Ability to adapt to Change: An individual's belief in their own ability to cope with and succeed in the change process. 

It is important to give space and time to these feelings, and to act with empathy and understanding towards colleagues as they work through the stages of transition as illustrated by the Fisher curve below.

The Emotional Transition through Change

The John Fisher Change Curve is a psychological model that describes the stages people typically go through as they adjust to change within an organisation. It outlines several key stages that individuals might experience when faced with change. 

To understand how individuals transition through the change curve you should be aware that not everyone will experience all the phases in this spefic order. And not everyone will go through every single one of them. People may move forward and back between the stages based on their emotional response as they progress through the change. It is also important to be aware that everyone reacts differently, some may share their feelings openly whilst others may keep it to themselves. 

Here are the 8 key stages of the Change Curve: 

 

1. Anxiety:

In the early stages of change, it common for individuals to experience anxiety, mostly due to uncertainty. Colleagues may be nervous as they face the unknown aspects of the change.

2. Happiness:

Following the initial anxiety, there's often some optimism or relief, particularly if the change is perceived as a solution to previous challenges. This phase reflects a positive initial reaction to the prospects of change.

3. Fear:

As change impacts  become clearer, individuals may experience fear concerning their capability to meet new expectations. This phase involves apprehension about adapting to the demands of the change.

4. Threat:

Change may start to be perceived as a personal threat, eliciting a response of increased stress and resistance. This phase is marked by a heightened sense of vulnerability as the individual assesses the direct implications of the change.

5. Guilt:

Individuals may go through a phase of guilt, contemplating their previous actions or inactions in light of the change. This stage involves a critical self-evaluation against the backdrop of new circumstances.

6. Depression:

This phase represents a low point where feelings of being overwhelmed and helplessness prevail. The individual might struggle to envisage a positive outcome, feeling stuck in the current state of transition.

7. Gradual Acceptance:

Transitioning from resistance, individuals begin to gradually accept the change. This critical phase is characterized by a growing acknowledgment that adaptation is necessary for progress.

8. Moving Forward:

The final stage of the emotional journey through change is marked by a definitive commitment to the new state. Individuals engage actively with the change, exploring and accepting new methodologies and approaches, thereby paving the way for innovation and growth. 

Practical tips for navigating The Change Curve

With knowledge of the Change Curve, you can plan how you'll minimize the negative impact of the change and adapt to change more quickly. Your aim is to make the curve shallower and narrower, as you can see in the image below: 

Decorative

To help you navigate the change curve you will need to Understand your Stakeholders and Change Impacts at all stages of change.

The following phases can help you support people through the change: 

 Phase 1: Own the Problem

The first phase concentrates on helping people to acknowledge and recognise the Case for Change. This initial phase can often be overlooked or rushed, sometimes through the presumption that everyone understands the reasons for change and that all agree on the root problem. People need to be – literally – happy to leave the old ways behind and will end this phase on a high because they ‘own the problem’.

As a change leader during this phase you will:

  • Establish rapport
  • Show empathy
  • Understand the business
  • Help diagnose the problem
  • Focus on facts
  • Challenge if necessary
  • Deal with ‘denial’

Phase 2: Own the Solution

The second phase creates agreement on exactly what will change and how. This sounds exciting but look: the curve dips! This is because there will be lots of negotiation here, and inevitably some options for change will be chosen over others. Then there’s the realisation of just how much you’ve all taken on…. But from here the only way is up, and people will go for it because they now ‘own the solution’. As a change leader during this phase you will:

  • Encourage creativity
  • Resolve conflict
  • Flush out the options
  • Look for the win-win-win
  • Focus on goals
  • Get into the detail

Phase 3: Own the Outcome

The third phase is all about moving from the plan to the point where the change is embedded as business as usual. It is an uphill ride, but if the team ‘owns the outcome’ they will be determined to succeed and will find their own solutions to any glitches that arise. As a change leader during this phase you will:

  • Be more directive
  • Train
  • Coach
  • Personalise
  • Involve early adopters
  • Help set new goals
  • Review and learn

Adapted from The Change Toolkit.

 

Resistance to Change

You may notice active or passive signs of resistance to your change initiative.  Use the two tables below to help you think through the root causes of the resistance you are feeling:

 

Active signs of resistance

Passive signs of resistance

Being critical

Agreeing verbally but not following through (“malicious compliance”)

Finding fault

Failing to implement change

Ridiculing

Procrastinating or dragging one's feet

Using facts selectively

Feigning ignorance

Appealing to fear

Withholding information, suggestions, support or help

Blaming or accusing

Standing by and allowing change to fail

Sabotaging

 

Intimidating or threatening

 

Manipulating

 

Distorting facts

 

Blocking

 

Undermining

 

Starting rumours

 

Arguing

 

This resistance may stem from many sources.  Resistance can be a blameless situational force:

Individual

Organisational

System-wide

Previous change experience (history, cynicism)

Lack of conviction that change is needed

Organisational culture, power, and politics

Discomfort with uncertainty

Lack of clarity as to what is needed

Incentive system rewards actions inconsistent with change goals

Perceived negative outcomes

Inappropriate change; clash with ethics

Supply-side: keep making choices that first created success (Gans 2016)

Attachment to the established culture or ways of doing things

Timing is wrong

Demand-side: keep supporting existing products and customers (Christensen, 1997)

Perceived breach of psychological contract

Too much change is occurring

Valid concerns about the change implementation

Valid concerns with the way the change is being managed

Gans, J. (2016). The other disruption. Harvard Business Review.

Christensen, C.M. (1997). The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fall. Boston, MA: Harvard School Press.

 

Tips for overcoming resistance to change

 Now that you have identified the root causes of the resistance you are feeling, below are tips to overcoming this resistance:

Reason for Resistance

How to deal with it

Loss of control over territory

  • Leave room for those affected by change to make choices, get involved with planning and take ownership

Excessive uncertainty during the change

  • Create a sense of safety with certainty of process, clear simple steps and timetables.

Change is sprung on people as a surprise

  • Don't plan changes in secret - keep people informed of what is happening.

Too many differences at once

  • Minimise the number of unrelated differences.
  • Where possible keep things familiar.
  • Avoid change for change’s sake.

Loss of face from those associated with current state

  • Celebrate the elements of the past that are worth honouring.

Concerns about competence

  • Provide abundant information, education, mentors and support systems.
  • Run systems in parallel during transition if possible.

Change is more work

  • Allow some people to focus exclusively on the change.
  • Reward and recognise participants.

Ripple effects - change interferes with the activities of other areas

  • Enlarge circle of stakeholders.
  • Consider all affected parties and work with them to minimise disruption.

Past resentments surface due to the interruption of a steady state

  • Consider gestures to heal the past before focusing on the future.

Sometimes the threat is real - change is resisted because it can hurt

  • Be honest, transparent, fast and fair.
  • For example, one big layoff with lots of support is better than a series of smaller cuts.

From: The Effective Change Manager's Handbook

 

The Psychological Contract

What is the Psychological contract:

The term "psychological contract" refers to what employees and employers expect from each other at work. These expectations can include beliefs, ambitions, and perceived promises about the relationship between the two. It is different from a formal employment contract because it deals with the unspoken, emotional aspects of the work relationship.

You may find that some resistance to change can be explained by a perceived breach in the psychological contract, for example an erosion of perks, or by shifting responsibilities.

Breaches of the psychological contract by an employer are not always avoidable. External factors like economic downturn can impact the ’deal’ between the business and its people. However, organisations can avoid many negative outcomes if they demonstrate fairness in how they deal with the situation, even if they can’t promise positive outcomes for all.

Why does it matter?

  • It highlights the importance of respect, fairness and trust in the workplace. 
  • It shapes how colleagues view their commitment to each other and what they believe they should receive in return. 
  • Employees feel more positive and perform better during periods of change when they believe they are being treated fairly and with mutual respect.

Tips for maintaining the psychological contract during a change:

  • Communicating Effectively: An effective two-way dialogue between project team and impacted people is a necessary means of ensuring the voice of end users and resourcing teams are heard throughout the project.
  • Regularly engage with your stakeholders during the process
  • Support knowledge transfer and training needs. 
  • Recognise efforts that colleagues implement to adapt to changes. 
  • Managing expectations: particularly when bad news is anticipated, managing expectations will increase the chances of building and maintaining a realistic psychological contract.
  • Measuring attitudes: Project teams should monitor attitudes towards the change on a regular basis as a means of identifying where action may be needed.

Adapted from Psychological Contract | CIPD

Additional Resources: 

Watch this short clip on navigating the change curve via your University LinkedIn Learning subscription.  

A further resource is available from Prosci: 5 tips for Managing Resistance to Change