Understanding how people react to change

Change can be unsettling or, in some cases exciting, but it will always generate a reaction. Here are some of the ways in which people you are communicating to might be feeling about change (as described by JM Fisher’s Process of Personal Transition):

  • Anxiety – can I cope?
  • Happiness – at last something is going to change!
  • Fear – what impact will the change have on me?
  • Threat – the problem is bigger than I thought.
  • Guilt – are the past failings down to me?
  • Disillusionment – this is not for me so I’m leaving.
  • Acceptance – maybe things won’t be so bad.
  • Excitement – I’m looking forward to the challenge.

The change curve (based on the model by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross) shows how people move through five stages when coming to terms with major change.

The Kubler-Ross change curve

It important to remember that people accept and adapt to change in their own time. Our communications will be designed to help people on that journey but gaining their understanding and buy-in will take time and the amount of time will often depend on the scale and impact of the change. Our communications approach therefore can not be based on a ‘once and done’ approach.

This video from John Kotter talks about communicating a change vision.

It is often the case that managers who may well have received more change communications ahead of their teams, will move forward more quickly than their teams. Leaders and managers who are closer to the decision making often feel more in control and are therefore more resilient to change.

As a communicator you will need to know your audience, and gain some insight as to where people are on this change curve. See the ‘Audience segmentation and insight’ chapter

The role of the internal communicator is to play our part in helping to move people from the end of one reality towards the successful ‘new beginning’ of another. This role is captured in William Bridge’s 4 Ps of change communications:

The 4 Ps of change communications

Purpose – explain why we are doing what we are doing
Picture – tell people what the change will look and feel like when we reach our goal
Plan – tell people how we will get from A to B
Part – explain what people need to do to help make the change a reality and a success

Managing the communications around the end of one reality and the start of another

It is vital to be honest about what will change, do not dodge the issues. It is also important not to rubbish what has gone before; people will have invested time and energy, so respect those efforts.

Tell people about the change that has taken place, as well as what is left to do. And keep telling them. Even if there is no news! People will fill a vacuum with their own stories and the rumour mill will reign.

Remember that people need time to process change, so don’t expect them to absorb lots of other messages, their minds will be on the change and how it affects them. With change being a constant in the workplace many colleagues have adapted and survived by applying a ‘one change a time’ rule of thumb. This means that bigger picture, on the horizon changes will often be put on the mental back-burner whilst more immediate changes are understood.