Managing Workplace Change


By Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP

If you’re a supervisor or manager then you don’t need me to tell you that workplaces today are changing exponentially – you’re living it. Resources are fewer, yet you and your staff are being asked to accomplish more tasks, give greater levels of customer service, and achieve improved results. All this while your workload escalates and your time seems to vanish into thin air. So what can you do to help yourself and your people successfully deal with this rapid pace of change? Start by understanding how people respond to negative change.

The classic change response model
When people are faced with what they perceive to be a negative change, their minds kick into auto mode and they go through four phases of response – denial, anger, acceptance and search for solutions.

This is easiest to understand if you look at an example. Andy is the sales manager for a manufacturing company and he is looking at the monthly profitability reports that were dropped off in his office last night. Much to his surprise, the report shows a loss for the last month; hard to believe because he knows that they signed several key contracts in just the last two weeks. Upon looking more closely, he finds the error; a large shipment to a new customer is not reflected in the report. “I don’t believe it!” he shouts, almost knocking over his cup of coffee as he jumps up furiously.

Andy has just entered the denial phase, which quickly shifts to anger. He rages to himself, “This is simply not possible. I asked Kari to ensure that the sale was recorded properly and she promised me that it would. Why can’t the folks in accounting get anything right?”

Fortunately for Kari, Andy is the only one in the department at this early hour of the morning. Twenty minutes and two cups of coffee later, Andy has calmed down enough to deal with the problem. When he says to himself, “How are we going to fix this problem?” he has moved into the acceptance phase. When he begins to mentally compose the explanatory emails he will write to Kari and his boss, he is actively searching for solutions.

With this change response model in mind, there are two key things to remember: every person must go through all four phases and different people take different amounts of time in each phase.

Every person must go through all four phases
And that includes you! Some people spend more time in the early steps and thus take longer to make it to the final phase, but everyone must go through each step in order to get to the solutions phase. As a leader, your role is not to eliminate the denial and anger steps; rather, it is to assist your people in moving through the phases.

Begin by recognizing that the more time people have to absorb the reality of change, the more likely they are to have moved through at least some of the denial and anger. Share information as soon as possible, since incomplete information with a caveat saying it is partial is better than no information at all. Besides, if you provide nothing, the rumour mill kicks in and people make up information anyway.

Respect people’s need to deny, and rage about, the change. Remember, these are two reactions to negative change. People need to vent. Make it safe for them to do so without repercussions. Acknowledge their anger and frustration. Validating statements such as, “I can see that this whole process is frustrating for you,” or “This situation has clearly upset you,” provide acknowledgement without agreement or disagreement. Let them know that you are going through the same phases and that it is okay to have some negative feelings. Above all, do not take other people’s anger personally.

Recognize that people will re-cycle through the phases. It is very common for people to reach acceptance and to begin searching for solutions when some trigger event — such as something another person says or does — sends them back into denial and anger again. This is normal, so take it in stride.

Once people have made their way through some of the denial and anger and are beginning to reach acceptance, schedule a meeting to brainstorm the next steps. This is an essential part of the search for solutions phase. People need to feel that they are contributing to the final outcome. It gives back a feeling of control and significantly reduces the “victim” mentality. It is worthwhile to bring in a professional facilitator for this meeting to help people focus on the search for solutions, and put them back on track when they begin to slide into denial and anger again.

Different people take different amounts of time in each phase
Do not forget that different people take different amounts of time in each phase. On one hand, you’ll have the individual who’ll almost instantaneously roll up her sleeves and say, “All right. Let’s go.” But on the other hand, you’ll have the person who seems to love to wallow in his misery. Tap into the first person’s energy and use her as an ambassador to create momentum; let her take something specifically related to the change and investigate, organize, or implement it. Invest more time in the second person, acknowledging his specific concerns and sharing your insights from when you made your way through the four phases.

Negative change isn’t easy, and nowadays its pace is so rapid that it feels like the next wave of change is upon you before you’ve even had a chance to stand up from the last one. Nevertheless, it’s a reality. If you use this model to understand how people respond to negatively-perceived change, you’ll be in a good position to help your people navigate through change.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP, turns managers into leaders by giving them specific and practical how-to steps to create high-performing, productive, and positive workplaces. Contact her at or 403.605.4756.

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