Understanding the Stages of Change

Stage One: Denial

When a big change is announced, the first response is often numbness. The announcement doesn't seem to sink in. Nothing happens. People continue to work as usual. It appears that productivity will continue and nothing will be affected.

The stage of Denial can be prolonged if people are not encouraged to register their reaction, or if management acts like people should just move directly into the new ways. Denial is harmful because it impedes the natural progression of healing from a loss (i.e. the old way of doing things) to moving forward. People stay focused on the way things were (neglecting both themselves and their future), not exploring how they can or need to change.

During Denial: Confront individuals with information. Let them know that the change will happen. Explain what to expect and suggest actions they can take to adjust to the change. Give them time to let things sink in, and then schedule a planning session to talk things over

Stage Two: Resistance

Resistance occurs when people have moved through the numbness of denial and begin to experience self-doubt, anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, fear or uncertainty because of the change. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified this stage in conjunction with her work with the dying. Some types of organizational change are similar to a death experience. If a company is sold, merged or there are layoffs, the expectations, hopes, promises and actual work goes through something close to a death for certain employees. People focus on the personal impact of the change on them.

In the Resistance phase, productivity dips drastically and people are often upset and negative. managers hear lots of grumbling, the personnel department will be extra busy and the copy machines will be churning out resumes. Accidents, sickness and work related absences multiply. Outside programs on change management are most needed during the Resistance phase.

While it is difficult for a company to openly experience negative expressions, that is exactly what helps minimize its impact. Allowing people to express their feelings and share their experience makes this phase pass faster. People who believe they are the only one who "felt" a certain way, or think their reactions are more intense than their colleagues feel better when they learn through sharing that others feel the same.

During Resistance: Listen, acknowledge feelings, respond empathetically, encourage support. Don't try to talk people out of their feelings, or tell them to change or pull together. If you accept their response, they will continue to tell you how they are feeling. This will help you respond to some of their concerns.

Phase Three: Exploration

During the Exploration phase, energy is released, as people focus their attention on the future and toward the external environment once again. Another word for this phase is "chaos". As people try to figure out new responsibilities, search for new ways to relate to each other, learn more about their future and wonder how the new company organization will work, many things are in question. There is uncertainty during this phase, including stress among those who need a lot of structure. During exploration people tend to draw on their internal creative energy to figure out ways to capitalize on the future. This phase can be exciting and exhilarating. It can create powerful new bonds in a work group.

During Exploration: Focus on priorities and provide any needed training. Follow-up on projects underway. Set short-term goals. Conduct brainstorming, visioning and planning sessions.

Phase Four: Commitment

After searching, testing, experimenting, and exploring a new form begins to emerge. When this happens, the individual or group is ready for Commitment. During this phase people are ready to focus on a plan. They are willing to re-create their mission and build action plans to make it work. They are prepared to learn new ways to work together, and have re-negotiated roles and expectations. The values and actions needed to commit to a new phase of productivity are in place. This is a phase of where people are willing to solidly identify with a set of goals and be clear about how to reach them. This phase will last until a new cycle of transition begins with another major change.

During Commitment: Set long term goals. Concentrate on building. Create a vision statement. Validate and reward those responding to the change. Look ahead.


Change is inevitable. The challenge is learning to move through the stages of change smoothly. What helps people navigate through unknown territory is a map of what they can expect, as well as information on ways to respond most effectively to the predictable challenges that change presents.

Set aside time in your next meeting to engage your team in a dialogue about the stages of change and how you may all work together to tackle your next change initiative with ease - you'll be impressed with the outcome!