Understanding the change response cycle is important for both those initiating change and those affected by it. The cycle explains how individuals move from their current comfort zone to their new as they respond to and accept change. Individuals migrating through the cycle may display passive-aggressive behavior with obstructiveness, procrastination, and resentment, while openly supporting change initiatives. Leaders must ensure that communication channels are open and are bidirectional so as to provide support
Both individuals and the managements of enterprises must understand how people cope with change. In business, the only constant is change, either by enacting or responding to it. Change affects all constituencies: employees, customers, suppliers, investors, regulators, and competitors.
The change response cycle explains how individuals behave through four phases: living in the comfort zone, resistance, anxiety, and acceptance; and how they migrate from their current comfort zone to their adapted.
Change offers opportunity for some individuals; it causes crisis for others.
Living in the current comfort zone:
The current comfort zone is where individuals are in their normal traditional state. The comfort zone defines their boundary for risk tolerance, especially when situations appear to be out of control. To be sustainable, enterprises and the individuals within them must stretch beyond their comfort zones because the only certainty is uncertainty.
In the comfort zone, an individual feels as if they are in control and have a certain degree of confidence. Their competence and commitment for tasks is apparently tolerated by their leader, regardless of whether their performance is satisfactory or unsatisfactory. A change in tolerance can place an individual outside of their comfort zone.
When change occurs, an individual responds with resistance because their comfort zone has been upset. They have a fear of the unknown, and a lack of understanding and trust because their current environment is being disrupted. They attempt to push back. The immediate response is immobilization – their performance is affected while they react emotionally. Denial then sets in while they challenge facts and information. They hope and assume that the change will occur elsewhere, and will not affect them.
Anger sets in when what appears inevitable can no longer be denied. Anger affects others in the environment. From anger comes frustration, which leads to inconsistent behavior. Whereas an individual may publicly support the change initiatives through both oral and written statements, they may actually try to interfere with them through blame, complaints, excuses, obstructiveness, procrastination, resentment, and sarcasm.
Anxiety is a reaction to stress, and is a mood characterized by apprehension in recognition of the imminent change. Anxiety can affect both mental and physical conditions, especially the immune system. An anxious individual attempts to preserve elements of normality, but can also enter a state of depression. Depression is a reaction to the impact of change.
Anxiety and depression enable an individual to prepare for the consequences of change, both mentally and physically. Anxiety is the turning point from which an individual migrates from resistance to acceptance.
Eventually an individual accepts the inevitable. Affected individuals always want to know what’s in it for them – the benefits and the incentives. They develop an expectation for the future state and then require clarity as to what it means for them. Clarity can be achieved though visualization and information. If individuals can see the future state, they can clarify it in their own minds. If they have information, they can analyze the data, and determine the impact at their own pace. As they clarify the new state, they can test it as a basis for preparing for the transition. Preparing for the transition leads to acceptance, which is a time for renewal.
Living in the adapted comfort zone:
As a consequence of change, an individual adapts to their new comfort zone – the new normal state. They become familiar with their new environment, and can regain control. Relief of knowing their situation sets in, regardless of the consequences. It’s up to the individual to build confidence, competence, and commitment to take advantage of the new opportunity or not as they see fit.
Management, and in particular the governance function, can ease migration through the change response cycle by clearly communicating the reasons, the potential outcomes, and the need for urgency when necessary. They should communicate regularly through many channels, encourage feedback, and ensure that access is not being blocked in either direction.
Communication should be encouraged in leader/follower relationships such that both parties talk and listen to each other. Leaders can provide support to followers to ease the transition as smoothly as possible by clarifying role, responsibility, and accountability in the new state.
Understanding the change response cycle is an enterpriship (entrepreneurship, leadership, and management) competency.
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