The Seven Stages of Change

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

As we’re preparing for a busy run up to the end of the year, I’m very mindful of our clients’ diversity journeys.  I’ve had many conversations over the summer with companies that are just getting started and those who have made good progress towards a more inclusive workforce.  What I’ve noticed is that, like a proper adventure, this journey is not without its surprises – not all of them pleasant.

Every time I start on a new journey with a client, I have to begin with a caution:  while the long-term impact of inclusion is nothing but phenomenal, it does come with a warning label.

Like any other organisational change process, the introduction of new values and behaviours will initially meet with resistance and challenge.  Not everyone is ready to go on the journey and not everyone believes in its benefits.  So, before you embark on what may seem like opening a “can of worms”, it’s important to realise that things might seem worse before they seem better.

This is when it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the Change Curve.  We’ve talked before about how change spreads across the population in my article Are you an Early Adopter or a Laggard? | Voice At The Table.

Today, I want to focus on how an individual person perceives change, such as new behaviours, values or expectations.

The 7 Stages of Change:

Stage 1: Denial

When new behaviours or expectations are introduced, an individual’s reaction may be that of shock or denial and to blame others for the change.

An example of this might be when we play back some of the thoughts and feelings of colleagues who have been previously hurt by certain types of behaviours and statements.  When we share these with management teams, for instance, sometimes people don’t believe these statements or try to blame the people expressing the hurt for not being “able to take a joke” or taking things too personally.

Stage 2: Realisation

Once the individual realises the need for the change, the next step is for them to become self-critical, feeling insecure and unhappy with their own behaviour and expectations of themselves.

In our example, this could manifest itself by people blaming themselves for being insensitive or uncaring towards the feelings of others.

Stage 3:  Resistance

The self-blame can turn into anger and resistance to the introduced change.  This can manifest itself in challenging the changes or “shooting the messenger” of the change.

People who react this way will need support for the changes to be successful.  This can take the form of simple listening or coaching conversations, giving people a reasonable amount of time to process and understand their feelings.  In persistent cases, it may be helpful to offer some coaching support to these individuals.

Stage 4: Letting Go

Gradually, sometimes with support, it becomes easier to let go of the past and recognise that the change is here to stay.  This requires the beginning of a mindset shift: changing how one sees themselves and others.

In this step, a person might be confused about the change and some challenges will continue to appear in the form of probing the changes.  Questions about the change might include: how do I fit this into my current life/work? How do I get better at this? How is it different from what I used to do before and why do I need it?

The need to remind people of the purpose and reasons for the change becomes even more important at this point.

Stage 5: Searching

The letting go of the past continues and gives way to testing and exploration of what the new changes mean for them.  This is when people start seeing the changes for what they are, what’s good about them and what’s more difficult.  They also start experimenting with how to adopt these changes.

In this stage, people are more willing to try out the new behaviours and less afraid to make mistakes by embracing the changes.

In these two stages, it is possible to slip back into a previous stage and return to self-doubt and blaming. This means that it’s particularly important to manage this transition carefully by reminding people of the reasons for the change and supporting them in staying the course.

Stage 6: Understanding the Meaning of Change

For those who refrain from travelling backwards from the Letting Go or Searching stages, this stage is a proper step towards embracing the change.  The recognition that change is well and truly underway is setting in, and people begin to accept and embrace the change as the new normal.  They have let go of the past and begin to realise what the changes truly mean to them and the organisation.

Stage 7: Change Acceptance

This is the stage that we all want to achieve: when people understand the new behaviours and are willing to embrace them.  When this is done more and more naturally, the benefits of the change become recognisable.  It is at this stage that new ideas, innovation and creativity blossom and when diversity of thought comes into its own.

It’s a long journey to attain the benefits of a more inclusive work environment but it’s helpful to remind ourselves why we set out on this course in the first place.  It’s also helpful to remember that, if you’re experiencing challenge, denial and blame, that those are natural parts of the change journey and you need to support each other through these early stages.

If you’d like some help with supporting people through these stages of change, please get in touch.

The individual change curve is also consistent with our Diversity Journey Roadmap for organisations.

Are you able to identify where your people are on either one of these maps?