The 5 Stages of Change

Creating change is something that we all need to do to enact any future state that is different than today.
In other words, to help create a different future state where the new ideas of today become the reality of tomorrow.

Creating organizational change, to me, is the same process by which we have to undergo when trying to add good habits into our lives.  Just like quitting smoking, exercising more or even setting time aside to read a good book, the stages of this type of change is akin to the psychology of change.  The following is based on the book Changing for Good by James Prochaska, PhD and is a great grounding tool to recognize why creating a change, takes so long, especially in large organizations.

As you see in the above figure, in order to create a change, most people go through at least 5 distinct stages–very similar to the 5 stages of grief (–that we move through, each at our own pace.  Like the 5 stages of grief, there are certain happenstances that occur that are recognizable and avoidable.

We often move in a spiral pattern upwards through the stages when we are learning and adjusting towards the change.  As with any internalizing process, we typically ebb and flow between stages.  We may be stuck in a stage for a long time and be able to move through a stage through appreciation and involvement of others.

When organizations decide to create change, there are many different steps that they take.  One is to incorporate leaders and high-potentials to help initiate and drive towards the decided future state.  As leaders in any organization, we should be aware and recognize these stages and what we can do as leaders to help move the process forward.  Additionally, we must also be able to recognize what stage we are in to help ourselves progress.

Stage One:  Pre-Contemplation

In this stage, we are not aware of  and may even deny there is a driving need for creating change. We often blame circumstances and situations beyond our control.  We often hear and say:

  • “The executive team says we need to be better salespeople.   Its fine, just a slow period.“
  • “I can’t close any business because our marketing materials are so bad.”
  • “I can’t sell these new products, my customers will not buy them.”
  • “Its better to be hitting my numbers and surviving than trying new things and not selling anything.”

Stage One Action Step:  Fact-finding and reflection to gain awareness and take ownership or at least partnership of the change.  Leaders focus on the facts of the organization situation and become aware of the benefits of the change.  Make a list of plusses and concerns for change.  Dig deep to find as many plusses as you can, then use those plusses to systematically overcome your concerns one at a time with thoughts and ideas that will help you (and your team) move towards the new future.

 Stage Two:  Contemplation

You have decided to be part of the solution versus the anchor that drags the process through the mud.  You intend to participate in the change but something is holding you back from being proactive or taking part in the change actions. Leaders gather their own momentum, take a few steps towards the goal but something inevitably slows you down, diverts your attention and then you get knocked off course and wonder where your motivation went.  It is a frustrating internal cycle of moving back and forth into what needs to be done today for today versus what needs to be done today for tomorrow.

Stage Two Action Step:  Jumping into full action while still in this stage can result in failure in both your day-to-day duties and the needs that enable the change to occur.  We tend to oscillate back and forth until something gives out to the other–both needs eventually suffer and one fully succumbs.  To successfully complete this stage, make sure you fully understand the risks you and your team face for not moving ahead.  “One important process used by successful changers is to get emotionally aroused by the problem.  Try to imagine what your life will be like in 5, 10, 15 years if you do NOT make changes (Emily Seigel, Triumph Wellness).” This is also a stage to ask for support by using a coach or mentor to offer advice  as well as engage your team to be a part of your plusses and concerns exercise.

 Stage Three:  Preparation

We are now getting ready to start to move forward, but not a breakneck speed just yet. Acting too early can backfire as we have yet figured out purely how to attain to all our needs, the teams needs and the organizations needs.  In this stage you move from self-criticism to future vision.  Motivation for our behaviors begins to switch from push to pull. (Push motivators are the things you are pushing away from ie: new corporate vision, processes, bosses, etc. Pull motivators are the things you are pulling towards you with excitement: new opportunities, being a part of the process/solution, making more money.

Stage Three Action Step:  You start making small positive changes slowly and gently–you cannot bite off more than you can chew as it will overwhelm you at this stage.  Once you are regularly performing one of your steps without too much struggle, you can add the the next small step.  From here on out you begin repeating the desired actions over and over again which leads to…

 Stage Four:  Action

In this stage you begin to problem solve issues and opportunities and create new alternatives and realities for yourself, your team and the organization.  Don’t put yourself into “testing” situations quite yet.  Have a well thought plan, process and support structure in place.  Here you are continually attacking the Plusses and Concerns list and making your successes visible to the team and organization.

Stage Four Action Step:  Begin to visualize how you it will look and feel when the change has been created.  It is often hard for 100% of the people to imagine themselves in a new future until this point.  It is also important to pre-plan rewards for success as your team and others achieve short-term wins in the process.  Focus closely on keeping yourself on track each day.  If you lose focus there is a tendency to regress to previous stages–remain calm, open-minded and  continually in problem solving mode to get past the gaps that will exist during the process.

Stage Five:  Motivate/Maintain

Your work is not done just because the future state has been realized.  In almost every case this is just the beginning.  You have to keep a constant pulse on yourself and your team to make sure that the “old way” doesn’t come back.  After all, the goal of creating change was decidedly for the better of the organization and everyone in it.

Stage Five Action Steps:  Keep a list of the issues that arise and identify the behaviors that are associated with those behaviors.  Create your own way of reminding yourself and your team why the change happened and what the growing positive outcomes have been.  Regardless of how bad we see things, there are always reasons why something is positive.  Make note the concerns and gaps you have overcome to achieve this result.  Give credit to everyone that deserves it and stay on your toes.  Constantly renew your commitment to the change and find new challenges and gaps to close to ensure the future state is maintained–and in fact, make sure that future state is ever evolving to produce positive results.

If there is a relapse to the old way, evaluate each situation independently and part of a system, immediately, and learn from it. Use your resourcefulness, open-mindedness and problem solving to move past the relapse and continue forward to help create the change.


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