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’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.
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 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:
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.