7 reactions to change (and how to respond to them)

Strategies for change practitioners to respond to common reactions people have when they’re impacted by change.


Organizational changes can have a spectrum of impacts – from positive to unwanted – on individuals, leaders or employees across the entire organization.

Even if people are welcoming the change, there can still be impacts from the change or related to the process to achieve the change.

Here are seven typical reactions people may display when they are impacted by change. Change practitioners can use the accompanying strategies to better understand how people are impacted and drive acceptance and adoption of the change.

“I’m not sure what to do.”

Reaction: Feeling anxious about the change and self-conscious about not knowing the new way.

Strategy: Acknowledge this is a legitimate reaction and assure the people impacted that they will be given any training that they need to enable them to perform well in the desired state.

What to do:  Take the people through their new roles and what the new state will look like. Focus on what will change and what actions or behaviors are expected of them. Remind them that learning opportunities will be available to help them be successful, and work with trainers to adjust learning as necessary.  

“It’s fine the way it is.”

Reaction: Thinking first about what they might have to give up, without considering what might be gained.

Strategy: Recognize the positive aspects of the current state, but outline the case for change. Identify what will happen if we don't change and why the desired state is better – or why it is necessary to change at this time. 

What to do: Don’t try too hard initially to sell the benefits of the desired state. Instead, begin by acknowledging the value the current state and convey that it is healthy (and often necessary) to proactively respond to changing conditions. And you could stress one new gain in particular that easily outweighs whatever is lost: the knowledge that your organization will be stronger because it has changed.

“No one is considering how this will impact me.”

Reaction: Feeling isolated, even if everyone else is going through the same change.

Strategy: Provide opportunities to listen, share and communicate in groups to jointly recognize shared challenges or opportunities.

What to do: Structure group activities around the change to cement cooperation and a sense of shared purpose. For example, you could hold a group session to define more precisely some of the blurred edges of the desired state. Ask people to produce diagrams or charts showing possible ways in which new elements of the desired state will fit together or will fit with old elements. Encourage people to discuss these different models and their virtues and challenges.

“Haven’t we tried this before and it didn’t work?”

Reaction: Ignoring the change because there have been so many before.

Strategy: With leaders, develop clear goals, responsibilities and strategies to improve the success of the change.

How it works: Be clear in your communication what actions are being taken to ensure success. Acknowledge past poor performance and point out actions to reduce the chance the same will be repeated.   Go through the timeline for the change, emphasizing key dates and deadlines. Share summaries of the timeline so that everyone knows what will happen and when.

“I’m fine with it – but other people are not.”

Reaction: Being more – or less – open to change than others.

Strategy: Recognize that some people are risk-takers, some take a balanced view, and others are cautious. Share that everyone's perspective is important and can help identify where specific challenges might be. 

How it works: With risk-takers, discuss the stages of the change and encourage them to focus on anticipated situations. With the cautious ones, try to understand what specific concerns they have and address them patiently and constructively.

“We don’t have time for this.”

Reaction: Feeling they lack enough resources for change, such as enough time.

Strategy: Communicate the plan and what is being done to manage limited resources or allocate more.

How it works: Even the best planned change may cause stress. People may overestimate the difficulties of their roles and feel that what they are being asked to do isn’t possible within the time allotted. Go back to the timeline and help these people understand the timeframe, and ask their opinion on what might be adjusted to ensure success.

“This won’t be permanent.”

Reaction: Returning to the old way of doing things.

Strategy: Weave the desired state into the organization’s culture.

How it works: Prioritize and promote actions that reflect the desired state. This can include symbolic changes (such as redecorating the office or upgrading furniture and equipment) and a reward or reinforcement system. With leaders and employees, communicate in terms of the new desired state.


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