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Change Management

Coping with Change

September 7, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Change Management

Coping with Change

Every individual will inevitably cope with change very differently. And of course, this will depend not only on the person (and his or her skills and temperament to handle it) but on the changed situation he or she is facing, and how major in scale it is. In many cases, individuals get caught-up in change very quickly and then try to cope on a just-in-time basis, using stratagems and tactics that are almost invented on the spot. Although these can sometimes work well, there are a number of well thought-through approaches and models that have been developed over the years to help us understand the psychology of change and how we might better cope with it. Three of these models are therefore described below.

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin’s simple three-step approach, still popular since being put forward in the 1940s, says that we must first overcome the inertia that we confront when attempting to change something.

Unfreeze Change Refreeze

Lewin explains that people’s mindsets are “frozen” around the current approach (“we’ve always done it that way”). So first, we have to dismantle those existing structures that reinforce the status quo – what he called the process of “unfreezing,” showing, for example, how or why something isn’t working well, creating an awareness of a better possibility.

Secondly, we have to actively introduce the change – we can’t simply let go of something secure and try to grasp nothing; there must be a new way, new approach, or new structure to grab hold of. We also have to expect that the change experience will typically be confusing and uncertain. We don’t know how things work, processes are unfamiliar, and unexpected challenges or issues will confront us.

Thirdly, we have to then “re-freeze” mindsets around the new approach; we don’t want the old ways returning, so it’s vital that the new approach is embedded and locked in. This is usually accomplished by reinforcement thinking at a personal level and by creating supporting teams and individuals who can support one another and avoid backsliding. Ideally, people then come to internalize the new approach.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross became well-known for her work on grief, especially her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” in which she introduced the stages people typically go through when grieving a loss – which can include loss of familiar ways of working, colleagues, or responsibilities. Even when there is something new to work with and new opportunities, it is typical for us to grieve what we’ve had to let go of. Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: Denial…Anger…Bargaining…Depression…Acceptance. However, later psychologists not only saw her work to be applicable to any major change, but added other steps in the process, such as the initial “shock” phase and the addition of an “Experiment” phase. These extra steps, and some more commonly used change-coping terms are shown in the diagram below:

Kübler-Ross Change Curve

Jeff Hiatt

Unlike Lewin and Kubler-Ross, who both attempted to identity how the change process works, Jeff Hiatt’s AKDAR model (put forward in his 2006 book “ADKAR: a Model for Change in Business, Government and our Community: How to Implement Successful Change in our Personal Lives and Professional Careers” presents 5 building blocks for individuals to negotiate in making a personal change or in helping others to manage a change. It’s therefore helpful for reminding us about how we can better cope ourselves and to help other people around us deal with change if we can provide opportunities for them to use each of these building blocks.

Hiatt’s “AKDAR” model:

  • Building Awareness of why the change is needed
  • Developing Knowledge of how to change
  • Creating Desire to support and participate
  • Fostering Ability to implement new skills, behaviors
  • Providing Reinforcements to sustain the change

The AKDAR model is a useful reminder about how important it is for us to take an intentional and positive approach to change processes, so that change becomes a reality and the break with the past is clear.

So what can we say about coping with change in summary?

In general, all three of these models have some common themes about change being a journey or progression over time or occurring in clear stages. The process of breaking with the past way of doing things begins with developing awareness of why change is needed. Identifying what is wrong or inadequate is one approach (e.g. current approaches are too costly, too laborious, not cost-effective, too resource-heavy) and identifying better opportunities are another (e.g. future approaches are likely to be faster, quicker, easier, more productive).

Knowledge about how to change and fostering this ability are vital to: a) building one’s own or others’ confidence in the new approach and b) embedding the new way in their behavior. Once people are acting a certain way they are able to take ownership of the approach – it’s much more real than simply hearing about an idea or concept.

Of course, in some change processes there will be those who simply cannot or will not make the change. This becomes a challenging situation – how long do you try to help them and at what point do they make the decision for themselves that they simply won’t be staying with you on this journey? This is not a question with a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some people need longer to process the change, but you can only move at the pace of the slowest member for so long. If you’re genuinely trying to help individuals (not simply boss them into agreeing), most people will at least try to understand. The support and encouragement of colleagues is vital in these circumstances. But at some point people must be part of the new way or they cannot remain part of the team. Part of breaking with the past is making this point clear to people – and treating those who won’t make the journey of change with dignity and respect. Not being willing to change doesn’t make someone a difficult or “bad” person, and everyone has the right to make those decisions – but of course such decisions have consequences.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Chris LaitSeptember 13, 2012 at 11:42 am

    This is a clinically presented digest of change theory. The observations made by Kübler-Ross (1969) have transformed our thinking in this area ad Jon brings the theories together eloquently. I like to exaggerate the posible time context for effect. The axis can represent years, or even reach to infinity as those coping with change fail to progress.

    My favorite analogy of a shorter time frame is having a goal scored against your favorite team. Classically there is shock, then denial as you look straight to the linesman to see if is offside. This is always followed by grave disappointment and commonly blame – “who was supposed to be marking him?”. Then the experimental, this could be an advantage; is the kick-up the rear we needed? Or all we need is a substitution. All this often within minutes. Granted this rather mild by comparison to other life changes, but it neatly represents how change can be accepted and see fans are back behind their team in a short space of time.

    We live within this model most days of our lives as we digest news of varying severity, from forgetting to put the bins out to dealing with a speeding ticket. If we can begin to understand how we react in these less important moments, the self-awareness raised can help us cope in more challenging circumstances.

    In my own field of leadership training through sailing, we are constantly dealing with change as unexpected events or conditions are foisted upon us on a fair regular basis. And it is the skipper/captains ability to control these changes that keep the yacht safe, win the race, or simply make life enjoyable for the crew. We see plenty of personal examples in the workplace of superiors not reacting to change, planned or otherwise, very well. he question is, who can be honest enough to look at themselves and say, I didn’t handel that so well.

    Using the models above in an active and dynamic scenarios can help all of us deal with professional and personal issues better.

    Thank you Jon for a great piece.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerOctober 10, 2012 at 9:22 pmAuthor

      You are most welcome Chris and thanks for the supportive comments. I also love the football analogy.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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