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Leading people through the 4 stages of change


joshuabrusse.jpgBy Joshua Brusse, Chief Architect, Asia Pacific and Japan, HP Software Professional Services


I recently wrote about the importance of understanding and managing the change curves that your stakeholders go through when you undertake any transformation effort. In this post I want to talk about how individuals respond to change.


You can find discussions of various change curves in many business and management books. But based on my experience, I’ve found that people move through four quadrants when a change is announced. Everyone goes through the changes, even if the change is perceived as good.


For individuals, the change curve is an emotional one. Some people will move through the curve in a split second, and other people take months to go through each part of the curve. And some people never get out of one part of the curve. These responses to change are normal and don’t necessarily signal a lack of willingness. Each step is important and each step will happen. Here are the four stages along with tips for helping people through them.


Stage 1: Denial

In the denial quadrant stakeholders are stuck. They will usually feel the change will be bad for them personally and they are afraid to lose the first three “Maslow needs” (Physiological, Safety and Belonging Needs). Denial is usually unconscious; people deny that they are in denial! Yet employees in denial show certain signs:


  • They don’t engage or participate in discussions
  • They may do things to undermine the change or actively sabotage it
  • They show apathy or they may become preoccupied with other, increasingly bureaucratic matters
  • They don’t understand why the change is necessary: “Everything is going well!”


Here’s how to deal with denial:

  • Allow time for the change to sink in
  • Provide information in as many forms as possible and be clear about the drivers for the transformation
  • Anticipate needs for comfort, security and belonging
  • Encourage discussion and any kind of participation
  • Don’t tolerate sabotage; confront stakeholders who aren’t going along with agreed working practices


Stage 2: Resistance

Resistance is the next stage. It is VERY important to understand that employees don’t really resist change; they resist loss. They resist the perceived lack of control the change will bring. They resist being consciously incompetent. As a result employees in resistance may :


  • Complain rather than try to make the change work
  • Engage in blame, criticism or anger
  • See only what’s wrong


Open resistance is actually good; when you hit resistance, inquire! Resistance signals engagement. This quadrant can also be a constructive time for employees to voice their concerns and skepticism about the change, which can be a good reality check for managers.


Here are tips for dealing with resistance:


  • Listen to people’s feelings and concerns, don’t try to talk them out of it
  • Encourage people to address their concerns and skepticism about the change
  • Encourage them to put their energy into trying to make the change work rather than complaining or doing only what they want to do
  • Recognize the losses that people fear: the loss of control, the loss of competence and come up with ways to address this, such as more training and communication


Stage 3: Exploration

Employees in the exploration quadrant are starting to look to the future. They are looking for new possibilities, however they’re also exploring alternatives (because they may retain some skepticism from resistance). This can result in lack of focus, indecision, distraction, and too many ideas or a feeling of too much to do. It is important that this is well managed because an employee usually alternates a between “exploration” and “resistance” for quite some time. Turning down alternatives and ideas could make an employee go back to resistance! But employees in exploration generally are feeling hopeful that they can make it in the new organization and are receptive to problem solving.


The following tips can help you to address exploration:

  • Channel energy into positive directions; don’t turn stakeholders down but help them modify their ideas to better fit the change
  • Encourage and support brainstorming and strategy sessions
  • Provide positive feedback and acknowledge employees’ changing attitudes
  • Address employee indecisiveness, remaining fears and lack of focus
  • Provide training, along with referrals and networking so that employees gain more knowledge and competence
  • Help employees re-evaluate their careers


Stage 4: Commitment

This is the final quadrant, but leaders must understand that commitment is not the same as consensus. Committed employees may not necessarily agree with everything, but they are convinced that there is an inspirational vision and a solid business strategy to move forward and that the vision and strategy can actually be implemented. Committed employees feel that it’s possible for them to contribute and to be successful.


  • They’re part of the team and willing to learn
  • They put energy in to making things work or work better
  • They feel included and include others


You can encourage committed employees by rewarding success and acknowledging their accomplishments. As you do this, committed employees can effectively become champions—they become advocates for the change and help other employees move through their change curves. You want champions!


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