The big 4 emotions of the change curve

emotions of change Feb 09, 2023

Change management is a relatively young profession. It's only been around since the big 6 accounting firms started selling "re-engineering services" in the 1980s. At that time, the primary psychological theory behind change management was based on the 5 stages of grief as documented in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' book On Death and Dying (1969).

That thinking got updated and simplified two decades later in William Bridges' On Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (1991). He summarized the psychological phases of transition into:

  • Letting go of the past
  • The "Neutral Zone"
  • The new beginning

Those two books are still among the most influential in the practice of change management today. Along with a slew of methodologies (Lean Change, PROSCI's ADKAR model, John Kotter's 8-step process, and many other proprietary methods) that have exploded over the past 15 years. (I've even helped build two proprietary methodologies for large organizations.)

I am a process zealot, but tool agnostic when it comes to change methodologies. 

There are many ways to get to the outcome of supporting organizations and individuals through change. It's not about which one you choose but that you persist through the process.

What I know to be true after watching and supporting thousands of people through change, is that there is an emotional pattern people experience:

This pattern follows the stages of grief as outlined by Kubler-Ross, with the nuances of each of the big four emotions varying based on the individual (my version of fear shows up differently than yours). The depth and duration of each emotion also varies based on the specific change.

I simplify the language describing the emotions to make it easier to remember (and recognize) them in oneself and others. The typical pattern:

  • After a brief surge of excitement, fear sets in. This looks like: uncertainty, confusion, worry, and anxiety about the future (Am I "safe"?). During this phase, people express doubt and may ask questions about why the change is necessary. 
  • Fear is followed by anger. This can be an overt expression of frustration or pushback, it can also be quiet and unexpressed. People have different relationships with anger and what they perceive to be an appropriate expression of this emotion. That's especially true in the workplace and as a result of specific cultural influences. 
  • In the lowest part of the curve is sadness. In a work setting this doesn't typically involve tears, but it may look like low energy/engagement, a lack of optimism about the future and a holding onto current practices as a way of managing the grief. This part of the curve is the most important to anticipate and provide outlets for letting go to move forward. It is also the place where change management actions can greatly impact the amount of time and the depth of the curve.
  • Finally, people start to express forms of glad. This looks like asking questions, being curious, trying new ways of working/behaviors, and having more hopefulness about the future. It's also the longest part of the curve to counterbalance the "negative" emotions. (They're all necessary! Which is why I say it's not about which method but that you persist through the process.)

This emotional pattern is consistent. There are several other things I've observed over the years:

  • It's possible to influence the speed and depth of the change curve through specific actions (communications, training, leadership reinforcement, stakeholder involvement). That's what a good change manager does in an iterative fashion.
  • The better one is at recognizing one's emotions AND accepting them, the easier the change curve can get. There are also self-management techniques to support emotional processing.
  • It's possible to 'slip backward' on the curve. It's not linear.
  • Change happens at a macro level and also smaller micro changes happen within that area. For example, a transition from a dependent child to an independent adult has a series of smaller changes within it. One can be at an earlier phase (fearful of the overall macro change) and further along on a micro change (glad to be living in my apartment!)
  • Effective change leaders recognize and influence the emotions of others. They do this through the words and actions they take with those individuals.
  • It is an advantage in life and work to get faster and better at processing change. It allows us to take on more, and process it more easily.
  • Past experiences and belief systems influence a person's ability to process change. Becoming more self-aware and working through life histories supports more effective change processing.
  • People with greater self-awareness recognize emotions in themselves more quickly.

There are no right and wrong ways to do change, but from my experience, this pattern of emotions holds true no matter what the change is.

Once you know the pattern, you can bring greater awareness and influence to accelerate the transition to future state. 



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