Development Cooperation Handbook/Learning and Knowledge Management/Individual Change

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Individual Change


Individuals in organizations respond to change slowly[edit]

We need time to make a psychological transition. This transition is a period where there is a gradual, psychological reorientation to the new circumstances. We disengage from what was, live in a confusing-ambiguous place, and then becoming familiar with and accept the new reality. Things become comfortable again.

As we are making the psychological adjustment to something ending, it helps to ask ourselves specifically what is ending. Is everything ending or are only some things ending? We have a tendency to exaggerate the losses we experience. We can also help ourselves and help each other during this time by using rituals to mark our break with the past. Organizational rituals to note endings can really help people during transitions. Those cards, good-bye parties, and other similar acknowledgements all help us adjust to change. In the experience of many change managers, most of the time spent in change management at the human level, is in dealing with or helping people deal with endings.

After people have let go psychologically they are in a state of flux Bridges calls the neutral zone. What used to work no longer does. What used to be no longer is. We often see lots of unusual behavior from people during this time. But it is also a very creative time. Make note of the ideas that emerge and look for ways to use the best of them. Explore the creative side of this zone. Think things over. Try new things. Experiment. The neutral zone, while uncomfortable for most of us, can also be very productive.

Eventually people adjust to the new situation and become familiar with the new order of things. It helps to become grounded in this new beginning by focusing efforts on achieving quick, early, but meaningful successes using the new ways of doing things.

Emotional Reactions to Undesired Change[edit]

In her classic work on death and dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described five emotional responses to undesired change. They are denial, emotion, bargaining, depression, and integration-acceptance.

  • Denial is passive resistance defending the person from acknowledgement that change is occurring. The resistance continues with emotional feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and disappointment. The person then looks for someone to blame – sometimes blaming themselves, often blaming others (management), even the Universe.
  • The bargaining is a see-saw between denial and emotional expression, an attempt to see the self as a victim of change while trying to adjust to the fact of change. When the bargaining does not work, people internalize their anger and frustration as depression.
  • Eventually, the person adjusts emotionally and accepts the change.

Emotional Reactions to Positive Change[edit]

Kubler-Ross’ descriptions of individual reactions to change were describing some of the psychological responses to undesired change. We also respond emotionally to changes we have chosen and changes we actually like.

In the beginning of a desired change our morale is high. We are excited and optimistic. We need this energy to get us going on the change path. As time passes we start to encounter problems in making the changes we want. We may find we do not have the time, money, or support we need for our change. We encounter resistance from others; sometimes we have some internal resistance to manage too. Our morale drops. This place of doubt is the first place where people bail out. If we continue, it is usually because we have made it over all many hurdles, changed our attitude from pessimism back to optimism, and shored up our commitment to the goal of the change. The top of the curve is the turning point from doubt that we will make a successful change to hope that we will reach our goal. With continued effort and successes we become confident in reaching our goal and eventually accomplish it.


Leading Individuals through Organizational Change[edit]

Change is not comfortable for people mostly because managers do not support people in the transition process. Managers often drive the change and then leave subordinates to their own devices to do their best and cope with / adjust / resist the change. It is more effective to shift from managing-driving organizational change to leading individuals through change. Change agents leading organizational change ought to:

  • Acknowledge the loss from the employees’ perspectives. Empathize with them. Communicate the normalcy of the psychological transition time. Share similar experiences with them.
  • Assist organization members in re-framing the change so that they can see the advantages to the new order.
  • Discuss the vision of the new situation in vivid detail so that employees can imagine them selves acting confidently and competently in the new environment. Expect their best and tell them so.
  • Encourage people to act knowing they can always change direction later. Do not let them stay in emotional paralysis. Sometimes just taking a step in the new direction releases pent up energy.
  • Recognize, reinforce, reward, and celebrate small wins – keep them motivated.

Remember! Organizations don’t change. People do.


A final essential element found in sound relationships is communication and the sharing of information. Information is the life-blood of organisations because it is the life-blood of relationships. Just as organisations are built of people in relationships, relationships are built of communications. The only thing that really happens in a relationship is the sharing of information. It is necessary for people to have timely and accurate information regarding expectations, plans, goals and objectives. In the absence of this information, people will generate their own inaccurate and poorly timed information, often referred to as rumour.

Successful managers of innovation and technical change must, of course, be technically competent. However, technical competence is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for success. With the addition of inter-personal and relationship competence we see true managerial and organisational success.


See also[edit]

In other sections of this handbook :
Ezra Cornell's first book.jpg Organizational Culture
Ezra Cornell's first book.jpg The projectized organization
Ezra Cornell's first book.jpg The learning organization
Ezra Cornell's first book.jpg The employee empowering organization
Ezra Cornell's first book.jpg How do we manage the human resources of programmes and projects?


What kind of "change" are they looking for?