The Seven Reactions to Change

NO ONE IN the developed world can complain about a lack of access to the latest business news. Screens in office lifts, shopping malls, and banks flashing news headlines and stock market updates almost round the clock, while Twitter, Google, and all of our most trusted news sources are always accessible from the smartphone in your pocket. With such coverage, very little goes unreported and uncommented on – from corporate restructuring and earnings to business collapses.

What these events share in common is change. Without change, there is not much of a story and nothing substantial for Bloomberg, CNBC, or others to sink their teeth into. In fact, it is fair to say that business, as usual, does not make the headlines because what most people really want and expect to hear about is change.

At one level, organisations fully appreciate this fact. They recognise the importance of submitting reports to the regulators, keeping shareholders informed and announcing board decisions in press releases.

However, when it comes to explaining those changes to their employees and implementing them successfully, they often fall short.

It can sometimes take months for major business decisions to trickle down to the point where everyone involved understands what is being done and why. By then, the momentum is lost and the intended impact diminishes. Worse still, the same happens even in small teams or at department levels.

Think of the time you heard about the new country manager five days after he joined, learnt that your colleague resigned three weeks ago or were told to use the new customer database for which you had no password.

These events may not be earth-shattering, but they can have an impact on individuals and affect performance.

As a leader, you need to accept that change is constant and relentless. You must also understand how people in your organisation will react to something new, and anticipate the full implications from their point of view. Only then can you ensure a positive outcome.

If you understand how others think and behave, you will have a far better chance of achieving what you want and leading a team effectively. Here are seven typical reactions to change:

Reaction No 1 People will feel uncomfortable and tense. This is particularly true when someone is asked to do something different. To understand this idea better, think of playing golf. Have you ever tried changing your grip? If you have, chances are that you have become more aware of the way you hold the club, the people watching you and the bad shot that may follow. The same is true in the workplace. During the first few days in a new job, people are very conscious of wanting to make the right impression.

Reaction No 2 People will think first about what they have to sacrifice. For example, when a corporate restructuring is announced, the first thing that goes through people’s minds is not “This is going to be great for my career” (although some people may be thinking that.) Most are more concerned about losing their status, responsibility or team. Their thoughts are about what is going to be different. Only much later will they consider what they stand to gain.

Reaction No 3 People are at different levels of readiness for change. Some will believe it is time things changed and will feel impatient to get on with it. They will even volunteer to be ambassadors of change. Such people will be the most likely ones to switch jobs frequently, shift to new roles in the company, and typically believe that new technology is good. Others will see any change, regardless of how insignificant, as the worst thing that could possibly happen. They have a mindset that denies change and will probably deal with it by believing that everything will be back to normal soon.

Reaction No 4 People will often feel lonely. Most significant changes introduced in organisations have an effect on the staff. During a merger or a takeover, everyone in a department will feel the consequences. However, some individuals tend to feel that the change will have a bearing only on them. They are almost unaware of the feelings of the person sitting in the next cubicle.

Reaction No 5 People can handle a certain degree of change. However, if the changes are too drastic and happen in too short a period, people may be overwhelmed and fail to adapt accordingly.

Imagine this: You hear about the appointment of a new managing director while moving offices a week after a leveraged buyout of your company by its rival. Taken independently, these changes may not be too big, but collectively they can be overpowering even for a person accustomed to change.

Reaction No 6 People will feel that there are not enough resources. When change takes place, the general reaction is that there will not be enough time, people, systems and budget to meet the new demands. People often believe in the new goals but mistakenly think that the only way to achieve them is by doing what they have always been doing.

Reaction No 7 People will revert to the old ways when the pressure is off. When change is introduced, the focus will be on implementation. Some are excited while others are nervous. However, regardless of initial reactions, when the focus changes from immediacy to continuity, people go back to the way they used to work.

The first step to navigating your organisation, division or team through change is to recognise how people will react.

Although it is useful to be aware of these seven reactions, they are only pointers. Keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to change.

Your job as a leader is to understand how the change will affect your team before it happens, anticipate their reactions, and put systems in place to ensure that positive opportunities are maximised and negative ones are minimised. When you do this, the change in your organisation may well become newsworthy – and will lead to success, not failure.


Reasons for failure As a leader, you are constantly faced with changes – from minor things such as a request for a new report to major developments such as a restructuring of staff. Despite our continuous experience with change, research suggests that almost 70 per cent of all change initiatives fail to meet the expectations of key stakeholders. There are many reasons for this failure. Change is hard to manage, and it can be complex and difficult to quantify. However, most would argue that success or failure depends primarily on the leader. Think about why the change has failed in your organisation: the sponsor or leader changed positions, or did not care whether the change was successful. It could also be that the leader failed to communicate effectively with the people affected or perhaps lacked a clear plan from the beginning. It is ineffective or conflicting leadership that causes failure of change.

The middle path There are organisations where the only constant is change. An initiative for a new process or structure is defined and implemented, and it is time for some more changes. The underlying feeling in such organisations is that the company is not doing well unless there is change. This can be exhausting for employees. On the other hand, there are organisations that resist change and never adapt to new market conditions. Fortunately, there are not many of these dinosaurs around. For an organisation, a better position lies between these two extremes. This involves a process known as “unfreezing, changing and refreezing”. This approach is useful because it allows time to consider what is working well and what is not. It allows an organisation to keep the good and change the bad. It also gives employees a feeling of stability and ensures that people are not stagnating.

How they feel Research conducted by Roger D’Aprix gives an insight into the mindset of a team experiencing change. Fifteen per cent will be angry. They will believe the organisation is making changes unnecessarily, or is making the wrong change. Forty per cent will be afraid, sceptical or distrustful. These people will either question the organisation’s capacity to implement change or tell themselves, “Here we go again.” Thirty per cent will be uncertain but open to change. These people will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, which means they are receptive to the idea of change but uncertain of the implications. Fifteen per cent will be optimistic and energised. They will welcome the change.