In this post we focus on how we react to change and what strategies we, as followers and leaders, can follow to ensure that a reactive approach can be transformed to a proactive approach.

How Do You React To Change?

how to react to changes

Let us start by promoting discovery in you, rather than simply telling you the answer.

I would like you to think back to an occasion when you experienced a change that was sudden, either in its announcement or in the occurrence, and which you perceived negatively. Examples include receiving unexpected criticism about an area you thought yourself competent in from someone you trusted and whose opinion you respected or being advised that you were being made redundant or being told by a former partner that they were finishing the relationship – any change that was sudden, affected you personally and was perceived negatively. Unfortunately, there is bound to be some such change in your past.

Once you have recalled the change, take a pen or pencil and piece of paper and write down your feelings, thoughts and actions – but separate them into three timeframes.

  • Immediate the instant of the occurrence or announcement
  • Short-term hours and days after
  • Long-term looking back after months or years

If you could complete this exercise before carrying on reading, that would be very helpful as otherwise there will be no discovery.

When I ask groups of managers to carry out this exercise, they invariably describe what is termed the transition or reaction curve (see Figure 10.1). I would imagine that you will have done likewise.


The curve charts how we react to sudden, negative change, the phases of that reaction we go through over time, and the impact those phases have on our self-esteem. The assumption is that we start off fairly high on the self-esteem level – we have quite a strong belief in our self-worth, our competence and our capability. If you like, we are quite mature. Then the change occurs and the curve is created by the following phases of our reactions to that change.

Shock And Denial

image for shock and denial

The first reaction to a sudden, negative change is one of shock. The suddenness, coupled with the lack of continuity, means that there is no connection between it and our existing mental model of reality. We have had no prior warning nor expectation of the event. Our reaction is purely instinctive and ‘animal’. We are caught like a rabbit in the sudden glare of the headlights of a car and freeze.

We do not necessarily believe the incredible – we deny the actuality that, at that moment in time, has no meaning. This is usually a short-lived phase, but not necessarily so. The key factors at play are:

  • The nature of the sudden change
  • The degree of evidence supporting the new change
  • Our maturity

You may have noticed how the curve in Figure 10.1 moves upwards slightly in this phase. Many years ago now, a large company decided to shut down one of its many production units, and the then General Manager was told to summon the workers and tell them that they were losing their jobs in six months’ time when the factory would be closed.

For the first six weeks after the announcement they achieved record production levels, denying this horrible future and trying to prove that their unit should be saved.

Resistance And Awareness

Assuming that we move beyond denial, then we will resist the dawning of the new, unpleasant reality. We are starting a process of integrating the new with the old and initially we have to resist the change so that the we can close the gap slowly. It is important, when we are responsible for the shock, that we understand this and have all the evidence at our disposal to overcome this inevitable resistance.

Sometimes we can be too logical and emotional ourselves – ‘Don’t you believe me? I wouldn’t lie to you. Are you calling me a liar?’ and so on.

Resistance is also inevitable because we are subconsciously fighting the descent to a lower level of self-esteem. When we are sacked, we lose self-esteem, we lose confidence and our competence declines. We become more insecure. Few seek out that reality. For example, a professional was made redundant during the recession. She was very competent, but the organization had decided that, because of cost-cutting necessitated by the recession, her function was no longer required. She was clearly advised that this was the reason for her being let go, but for some time felt that it was because she was incompetent.

Evidence to the contrary played a strong part in overcoming that perception: the organization subsequently used her services as an independent, and paid her roughly twice the amount she had received when she had been a salaried member of staff!

Anger And Blame

As our awareness that this change represents a new reality grows, as our resistance is overcome, we remain gripped by emotion. The emotion associated with shock is fear – an inevitable consequence of the high level of uncertainty that the event instantly generates. At this point, the emotion is one of anger and blame.

We ‘rail against fate’, and that anger can be both internally and externally focused.

A part of self-blame that can linger into and beyond acceptance is regret – ‘If only, I had…’. How often do children blame themselves, their perceived incompetence and inadequacy, for their parents’ divorce? How often does regret for the passing of good times stay with us for ever?

A confident extrovert tends to blame others, and get the balance wrong. A less confident introvert tends to blame themselves, and, equally, gets the balance wrong.

Blame is a necessary, but fundamentally counter-productive, phase associated with the emotional response in this kind of situation.

If we were operating at a high level of self-esteem before the sudden change, then the blame phase tends to be temporary and not too intense. This a fundamental point in terms of the shape of the curve. The higher our pre-existing self-esteem, the quicker the transition and the shallower the dip in terms of loss of confidence and self esteem. There is, unfortunately, an element of the virtuous and the vicious in our reactions to sudden negative change. The lower our self-esteem, the more vicious our reaction to it and the higher our self-esteem the more virtuous we are likely to be about it.


For most of us, we will move on to acceptance, eventually – it can be hours, days, weeks, months or years. However, the nature of that acceptance and the extent to which it is a temporary phase on a downward or upward path will vary.

Recognition of the likely reaction curve is critically important as it enables us to move from unconscious incompetence (at the mercy of the winds of reaction we do not recognize) to conscious incompetence (knowing why what is happening is happening, which gives the possibility of our cerebral side intervening positively).

Exploration, Discovery And Integration

Provided the nature of our acceptance has a rational and positive dimension, then we will move into the exploration phase. We have to fight to be rational, to accentuate the positive we do not feel, to seek support, retain balance, force out blame and replace it with detached understanding, and thereby preserve as much self esteem as we can. We must let the heart weep (mourning is vital), but force the head to change the heart.

So, the key to the ascent upwards in the growth phase is to explore and evaluate from the base of acceptance, but not on our own, with others. Then, we can discover new meaning and develop new skills. We can use those hidden strengths that adversity brings closer to the surface, but which we need to consciously uncover and tap into.

Finally, we need to integrate the new learning with the past, which was so suddenly changed. We need to review and reflect – to look back, not in anger, but with understanding.

Having looked at the curve in some detail, we now turn to how, as leaders, we can produce maximum gain with minimum pain.

How To Maximize Gain

Here we look at how to ensure we are at the right phase before ‘selling on’, then how to persuade our followers to accept change and, finally, consider how to maximize gain for the team.

Moving To The Right Phase

If there has been some organizational announcement, which you perceive as having negative aspects, then you will start descending down the reaction curve. The problem is that you have a duty as leader to sell on. Whenever I ask managers how effective they will be if they are sitting in the ‘anger and blame’ phase, they all reply ‘useless’. So, you have to get yourself to the sunny uplands before you can sell the change to your subordinates. There are five actions that will help you do this.

  • Use the assertive pause to control your emotions.
  • If only the ‘what’ has been advised, seek out your boss, or whomsoever knows, to find out the ‘why’. If we fully understand the thinking behind any change, it will often make sense.
  • Seek support, especially if you are an introvert. You may have a work colleague you can trust or a partner or friend.
  • Try to envision those sunny uplands – paint a picture of the change having been successfully introduced.
  • Focus all the time on all the benefits that any change brings in its wake.

Helping The Individual Follower

If you can promote ‘discovery’ or change in the follower or team, that is by far the best strategy. Again, it is amazing how, often, if we ask the right questions and get people to work things out for themselves, they will reach the same conclusions as we have. So, if it is feasible and there is enough time, try to go the ‘promote discovery’ route.

Often this is not feasible, however. Everyone (including the leader) has been advised at the same time, there is no time and so on. In these kinds of cases, don’t take it personally when an extrovert has a go at you. Simply give a full explanation of the thinking and share your vision of success, accentuating all the positive aspects, from the follower’s perspective.

Whatever the circumstances, provide support, acknowledge their emotions, answer all questions asked and allow time. You may have to repeat the key messages on more than one occasion. If at all possible, allow them to be involved in the ‘how’.

Maximizing Gain For The Team

When an event occurs suddenly that affects the team as a whole, each individual will descend down the reaction curve in their own way, and the team will be in danger of falling apart. Such an event could be an external shock – changed deadlines, IT system failing, sudden loss of a team member – or an internal one – a team member makes a mistake, say.

Let me give you a powerful example of this. A group of managers were trying to complete a two-day business simulation as one of a number of teams on a development programme.

This particular group had sailed through the early phases. They were carrying out the role of a subsidiary board running a pharmaceutical manufacturing company. The information had been digested and shared. The overall vision developed. A strategic plan had been devised, objectives had been set and performance indicators and policies were in place.

They had to make quarterly decisions, spanning three years, and had to input into the computer the first two decisions. Delighted with the results, which exceeded expectations, the five were grouped together around the computer, having just input the third quarter’s decision. They displayed all the hallmarks of a performing team – energy, commitment, focus, humour and very positive body language.

The results flashed up on the screen. Five pairs of eyes followed the screen down to the profit or loss figure for the quarter – not necessarily the sole yardstick for success, but one that all groups treat as king. They were expecting a modest profit. They saw a thumping great loss, in excess of £250,000.

Within less than a minute, the team had totally fragmented. The Managing Director of the group told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of the simulation. He was an extrovert, quickly accepted the evidence of ‘failure’ and was allocating blame externally to the group. The Personnel Director disappeared to the toilet. The Finance Director went to a corner of the room, shaking his head in disbelief, clutching the printouts to his chest. The Production Director and Sales Director entered a ‘healthy dialogue’ where each blamed the other for the debacle.

Now, assuming you were this team’s leader or Managing Director, what should you do? My suggestions would be the following.

  • Try to control your emotions, using the assertive pause technique. Until you are in control of yourself, you have no hope of controlling the situation and building the team back to better performance.
  • Call a review meeting.
  • Acknowledge the emotions team members are feeling, point out the inevitable temporary fragmentation of the team – the descent into an overly individualistic and ego-centred state.Suggest actions individuals or subgroups can take to review the data and consider the reasons behind the loss (or whatever the problem is – generalizing). Emphasize the need to move away from blame and personalization, however understandable that is.
  • Agree a meeting of the whole team in short order, where a team-based analysis of cause and effect can take place, using the base of research and thought individuals and subgroups have carried out.
  • At the meeting, lead the discovery of the cause or causes and agree the actions required to remedy the situation.

I hope you have learned how to react to sudden changes and how to maximize gain.