Skip to main content

IT meets behavior science: Driving change by understanding the 8 emotional stages

Understanding these emotional and behavioral stages can optimize change management efforts.
Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

The last ten years of my IT career have largely consisted of working with initiatives that had either been abandoned or ignored until they were assigned to me, often with little to no handover. The changes have often been complex and required other people to engage. This has provided me with opportunities to see how people react during periods of complex change.

Change management is—in my view—a generic process that should enable employees to accept the neverending transformation an organization must undergo to evolve and remain relevant to its customers and surroundings.

This article will look at the human aspect of change management in order to help you navigate those times of change more successfully.

Why does change have to be managed?

Change management is the art of making alterations without upsetting people.

Any kind of change can be cause for concern or anxiety, so by using a clear, formal process and making the adjustment in a managed way, it becomes less of a threat. A change needs to be understood within the context of time, how and to whom it's being communicated, and what sort of impact it will have on those involved.

For a few decades starting in the 60s, change management was people-centric, but in the last few decades, I've found that it has shifted to be more process-centric with less focus on the human behavior aspect. So, as the pace quickens and lead times are shortened, it is imperative that change participants are in control, skilled, motivated, and well informed.

Plenty of methods to manage change

Since change management is not always easy, nor can it absolutely guarantee a desired outcome, many books have been written on the subject, and many models have been developed in order to achieve a higher rate of success with the most optimal use of resources.

My own observations on how people react to change have allowed me to identify some clear stages within a change. These stages are independent of what change management method or process you are using; instead, they focus specifically on how people behave when they are affected by change.

The emotional roadmap to change has eight stages

In my experience, those involved in a change have followed the same pattern in Europe as well as in Asia. This roadmap of people's emotions and behaviors has allowed me to determine when a change has really merged into the company.

Following the roadmap, you might go back and forth between some stages or fall back by a few, depending on your circumstances, but it is always useful to know where you are. Several stages could be completed in a single meeting, or one single stage could take months to overcome. The challenge of change is often more about mindset than technology or a specific timeline.

Stage 1: Excitement

Everyone is all worked up, either in a positive or negative way, when presented with the change and what is about to happen. Details are not yet finalized, and there is wild speculation about what is going to take place. There are a lot of emotions and plenty of energy, which also makes it the best time to get stuff done.

Start teams, initiate workshops, assign tasks, arrange meetings, do a survey, feed the cat. All is possible right now, which makes it super important that you are absolutely clear about what you want to do and what is necessary in order to complete the change.

How long does this stage last? It can be hours or days, but it has an end, and that's when the real journey begins.

Stage 2: Confusion

More details emerge, and the change looks more complicated and perhaps even unsafe. Spoken, and especially unspoken, questions, together with rumors, create a state of confusion and insecurity​. Documents are read and interpreted in a way that you could not foresee. Meetings are held where doubt grabs hold of the participants and progress slows down. This stage is super important to manage because, if you don't, it will fuel the next stages and make them even more powerful and last longer, which, as you'll see below, you don't want.

Clear communication and open discussions are key to managing this stage. Make sure those who are more outspoken or doubtful in their critique manage the meeting minutes or lead tasks and pick up responsibilities. Make sure the meetings end in clear actions and documented agreements.

Just because someone is quiet does not mean they agree. Challenge groupthink and make sure everyone can bring their ideas and opinions to the table. You need to work your way through this stage thoughtfully, and it will really put your skills as a change manager to the test.

Stage 3: Disagreement

Thoughts and emotions take the lead, feeding strong negative reactions and preventing any further progress​. If Stage 2 was not managed properly or things you were not aware of from the start have emerged that cast doubt on the change, you are now faced with opposition.

Change usually requires people to break routine, and that means leaving the comfort zone. So if the change is not looking appealing or comfortable enough, the opposition will gain momentum, and you have plenty of explaining and arguing to do.

Please note that you should not be looking to "squash" the opposition. On the contrary, you should encourage discussions because there might be new ideas that could benefit the change and make it even more effective.

In general, disagreement means energy, so use it to your advantage.

Stage 4: Countering

Energized members gang up and start new initiatives in opposite directions. Now, things have escalated, and you risk rogue activities springing up that dilute or derail your efforts. This is a very difficult stage to navigate because the energy that was available in the previous stage is now undirected. Unfortunately, much of what happens in this stage is often quite counterproductive to what the initial change should achieve.

In large scale projects, these types of activities might be political in the sense that they try to undermine your change. The activities could also be practical, such as inviting a different provider, installing another software, or employing different processes to include or invalidate part or all of your change.

Here is where you need management support, especially when it comes to big changes. If you have the board or senior management on your side, the opposition will soon realize that "resistance is futile." However, use your powers wisely so as not to prolong the next stage.

Stage 5: Avoidance

This is when the opposition runs out of steam or has been set straight by management. Now those opposing the change will try to avoid anything that has to do with it. This stage can be a real Achilles heel, especially if it drags on. People will avoid responding to your emails or provide fluffy answers that will prevent you from progressing. You will find less of an audience at your meetings, and the progress towards milestones will slow down to a crawl and, by doing so, temporarily avoid management scrutiny.

Personally, I am really uncomfortable during this stage because there is not much I can do except be persistent and stay on course, reiterate things, follow up, call people, etc. If the attention of senior management falters during this stage, the change could have a quiet landing in a dark corridor never to be heard of again.

However, the silver lining to this stage is that the reward is just around the corner.

Stage 6: Acceptance

Acceptance is now spreading through the involved parties, and the change begins to get back on track.​ Things start to show progress, and you are no longer the only contributor to decisions, actions, and meeting minutes.

The thing to note here is that it is a passive acceptance, which means if you ease off at this stage and declare the change complete, everything will come to a grinding halt, and the change will not be complete.

Stay focused, support, follow up, engage, and make sure others lead activities, not you. This is the key to the next stage.

Stage 7: Embracing

There will be a shift in mindset among the participants that will show itself in how they engage and drive activities. Discussions will be much more open and creative, details are discussed, issues are resolved. Everyone is on board and committed to seeing the change completed. The energy is back, and the change begins to morph into business-as-usual​.

Meetings are constructive and yield results, attention is right where it should be, and progress is good. Every change manager wants to be in this situation, just like a surfer catching a perfect wave. Remember, though, it is only an experienced change manager that can navigate to this point and be comfortable that the change is still not entirely complete.

Stage 8: Improvement

Those involved and affected by the change have contributed to making it part of daily operations and start to bring forth ideas on how to further improve and increase the usability of the change. ​

This is the stage where the change is actually complete​. It has infused into the organization and is now an organic part of daily operations, generating new ideas for additional changes.

When the organization realizes that completing a change is merely a way to gain inspiration for the next set of changes based on what has been achieved, the learning never stops, and the organization will continue to thrive and evolve.

Now you are done.

Wrapping up

This guide will help you navigate the people aspect of change management regardless of which process or tool(s) you use. One of the most important lessons is to stay on course. Keep your focus on the desired outcome and don't give up, but be flexible. Reality seldom matches the plan, so you have to adapt as you go along. Help others do the same by keeping an open discussion going and, at the same time, make sure you have strong support from senior management. Empower those around you to take the lead.

Heed this advice, as well as the warning signs that your technical project might fail (see articles linked below) and you will be in a strong position to manage change and navigate the complex landscape of IT that is made up of fantastic people and interesting technology.

[ Want to test your sysadmin skills? Take a skills assessment today. ]

Topics:   Career   Sysadmin culture  
Author’s photo

Joachim Haller

Member of the Red Hat Accelerators and Red Hat Chapter Lead at Capgemini. More about me

Try Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Download it at no charge from the Red Hat Developer program.