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What You Need to Know about How People Respond to Change

How People Respond to Change

Projects create change for the people in the organization where we are working. And the success of your projects will often depend on how well you manage that change process.

But dealing with emotions, arguments, and resistance is uncomfortable. So, too many project managers shy away from it. They either leave it to a ‘change manager’, or worse: they ignore it.

That is a big mistake. So, in this feature article, we’re offering a primer in Change Management. We’ll tell you what it is, how people respond to change, and the main pointers you’ll need to manage change effectively.

PMI Talent Triangle - Strategic & Business Management

What We will Cover in this Guide

How People Respond to Change

We will start by defining our terms and then look at how people respond to change.

The next section will show you the essential of what you need to do and we’ll conclude with a few important tips.

  1. What is Change Management?
  2. How do People Respond to Change?
  3. What You Need to Do to Manage Change Effectively
  4. What’s Important for Project Managers to Remember about the Change Curve

What is Change Management?

First, we need to clear up a mess. Because there are two different types of change you’ll need to manage, as a project manager.

Change Management versus Change Control

And this leads to a common confusion between ‘Change Management’ and ‘Change Control’. I shan’t pretend the distinction I will give you below is universal. But it is consistent.

In the real world, if you are not sure, from the context, which one someone is referring to… it’s best to ask. But here is my distinction:

The First Change is Technical Change

These are changes to the specification, functionality, or requirements of your project. I prefer to refer to this discipline as ‘Change Control’. Because, un-regulated, the pressures for scope creep within your product set will rapidly get out of hand, and you’ll have no control over your timelines or budget.

The Second Change is Organizational Change

These are all the changes that flow from the implementation of your project. The danger of calling it organizational change is that we can easily lose sight of a simple fact. This is fundamentally the outcome of each individual within your organization going through the changes in their own way. It’s the cumulative effect of all the people, who create the culture of an organization. I refer to this discipline as ‘Change Management’.

This Article…

This article is about the second of these: Organizational Change. We’ll look at how people respond to change, and what you need to do to manage your project, to make it as easy and effective as you can.

What about Change Control?

If you want to learn about the first of these, Change Control, we have you covered here, too. Check out our comprehensive guide:

How do People Respond to Change

We know that change can create resistance And nobody enjoys dealing with that!

So, you need a tool to help you both understand and predict the reactions of people to the changes you create.

Many people have developed different approaches to explaining the sequence of states we go through. Most of them use the metaphor of a curve: we follow a path that goes up and down.

A good model will explain what you observe and will predict what will happen. An excellent model will do this accurately – but in a very simple way. Each different change curve model aims at a different point of balance between complexity and detail on the one hand, and simplicity and ease of understanding on the other.

We humans are complicated beasts. And change is a testing time for us. So, that’s why a good change curve model is so important.

In fact, we published a short video ‘What is the Change Curve?’ in our ‘Project Management – What is…’ video series. So, let’s take a look at that, to get is started…

More than One Change Curve

As we saw in the video, there are a fair few models we can use. Here is a montage of the images. You can click on each one, to see a larger version.

The Kubler-Ross Grief Model | DABDA
The Kubler-Ross Grief Model

The Satir Model of Change | Dr Virginia Satir
The Satir Model of Change | Dr Virginia Satir

The Change Grid | Dr Cynthia Scott & Dr Dennis Jaffe
The Change Grid | Dr Cynthia Scott & Dr Dennis Jaffe

The Change Curve | Dr Mike Clayton
The Change Curve | Dr Mike Clayton

In addition, the internet is full of alternative versions. I like to clip the best into one of my Pinterest boards. If you’re a Pinterest user (or want to take a casual look), I have what I believe to be the best set of themed Project Management Boards on Pinterest. But for Change curves, take a look at my Change Management for PMs board. There, you’ll find lots of variants.

For an interesting assessment of the Kübler-Ross model, and it’s relevance to business, do take a look at an excellent article on the Cleverism site.

Which Curve/Model to Use?

I recommend you take the time to understand a variety of different models. One of them will make the most sense to you. It will chime with your way of thinking and accord with your experiences. Take this as your base model, and then work on it, to develop it into a tool that helps you to understand change, and plan your part in managing it.

Obviously, I prefer the model I developed. I created it out of my own experiences as a working Project Manager. And I have road-tested it in seminars, coaching sessions, and training with many hundreds of project managers, business professionals, and front-line managers and business leaders. It works.

For this reason (and no other), that’s the model I’ll use for the rest of this article.

The Change Curve | Dr Mike Clayton
The Change Curve | Dr Mike Clayton

What You Need to Do to Manage Change Effectively

As a project manager, you will encounter people going through changes all the time: from tiny, to small, to big, to wholly transformational. People won’t always need your help, and you won’t always need to do anything. But when your intervention is valuable, then adopt a light touch.

If, however, you are leading an organizational change, I recommend you make a ‘Progression Plan’. This is a plan that will move people from one state to the next. From:

  • Denial to Reaction
  • Reaction to Resistance
  • Resistance to Exploration
  • Exploration to Acceptance
  • Acceptance to Commitment


Change hasn’t started for people who are still in denial. You’ll hear them say things like:

  • ‘It won’t happen’
  • ‘Maybe it’ll happen, but it will be a long time before it does’
  • ‘I know it’s gonna happen, but it won’t affect us/me’

To start people on the journey, you need to overcome this kind of denial. Present them with facts, let them talk to people, show them graphs, give them experiences that demonstrate change will happen.

You need to make the change appear:

  • Certain
  • Imminent, and
  • Personal


When you get them into the reaction stage, you’ll have to face a series of emotions. You won’t be able to predict what they will be, but you can certainly expect one thing… It won’t be comfortable.

The best way to move people on is to give them time to process their emotions. You need to be respectful and honor the reality of what they are feeling.

One way to respect people’s emotional responses, and still accelerate them through the process, is to ask them to share what they are feeling. And then get them to analyze their emotions and what it is that is triggering them. This moves them from emotion to reason with minimal friction.

Once people start to move on from the reaction stage, it gets even tougher.


When people get into the Resistance stage, it feels like you have moved out of the frying pan and into the fire. Before: they may have been angry, but they were probably a little incoherent. Now, they are in a rational state. So they can marshal a logical argument. And they will. You’ll get a dozen good reasons why the change is wrong.

And probably they will doubt your competence as a result. Oops.

But, at least their logical minds are engaged, and that’s a good thing. So, now they can process a structured argument. If your case is strong, and you put it effectively, you’ll start to persuade them about the benefits of the change.


This is the stage where people explore the benefits, to them, of the change. If there is a net benefit, then they will be prepared to change.

But, being prepared to change is not the same as making the change. We only do that when the case rings true emotionally. And that can take time.

There’s often little you can do to accelerate this. But, the one thing that may work is if you can find a link between the changes that will happen and something the individual wants, at an emotional level. If they can see that link, then the switch from rational to emotional engagement can be almost instant.

Note, by the way, that there won’t always be a case for change for every individual – no matter how strong the case is organization-wide. Your integrity means you must not lie to people in that situation. You must accept that the change may disadvantage them and work with them to help them make the choices they need to make.


Acceptance is the final place for many people. They accept the change and start to get on with their working life under the new conditions. They figure out how to survive, and even thrive.

However, for some, the change has such profound meaning that they will do more than just accept it. They will see it as an opportunity to truly thrive and will become an advocate for the changes.


That level of commitment, where people actively support and advocate the change is what you really want… at least from a few people. Cherry-pick the big winners under the changes and engage with them actively. Give them a role and some influence. Consult and listen to them. Use them to Woo and Win other stakeholders.

Do You Like this Content, and Want More?

If you do, then you’ll like one of our latest courses:

Managing and Leading Change

Managing and Leading Change

Click here to find out more…

Take me to the next step in learning about managing change

What’s Important for Project Managers to Remember about the Change Curve

All of these principles work very well. But I’d also like to share a few of my practical top tips, speaking as a practitioner who has done this stuff a number of times.

First and foremost, this is just a model. It is a very good one, but it’s just a model nonetheless. And all the subtlety and complexity of real people in the real world won’t always match the model.

Understanding the Change Curve

Let’s start by looking at some of the ways you’ll need to be flexible in your understanding of the change curve.

  • People do tend to go through these stages. But the pace at which they go through them will differ.
  • Some people will be ahead of others, simply because they started earlier.
  • And it’s easy to forget that the people who are promoting the changes may well be struggling with them themselves.
  • The emotions in the Reaction stage can take different forms for each person. And they may also feel their emotions more or less intensely. And it’s more complicated than that, because one person may feel an emotion powerfully, but show little of it. Another may be hardly moved by events, yet display a disconcerting strength of emotion.
  • Withdrawal is an emotional response that looks like denial – confusing, huh?

Moving People along the Change Curve

Here are four practical tips for when you want people to progress along the curve.

  1. There is no sense in trying to influence people in the emotional Reaction stage. Emotions have taken control of their brains and their rational centers are working well below normal strength.
    They literally cannot process a logical argument properly.
  2. If your case for the change is not strong, you won’t persuade anyone to make the change.
    But then, why would you even try?
  3. On the other hand, your case may be strong. The changes may be right for the organization. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for each individual.
    In this case, they can get stuck in the ‘U’ bend. They may go into Exploration state, but won’t buy the changes, and so will slide backwards and get stuck.
  4. Some people are too fearful of the implications of not accepting the change. Even if it’s not right for them, they end up convincing themselves it is.
    This causes an inner conflict (called ‘cognitive dissonance’). Long after the project is over, it can manifest in stress, ill-health, poor behaviors, and self-sabotage. Line managers need to be alert to this.

What’s your Experience of Organizational Change…

and what are your Questions for Mike and the Community?

Have you experienced organizational change, as a leader or recipient? Do tell us about your experiences and reflections.

Or are you expecting to lead change in the future? What are your worries and what questions do you have?

I love getting comments below and respond to them all.

Do You Like this Content, and Want More?

If you do, then you’ll like one of our latest courses:

Managing and Leading Change

Managing and Leading Change

Click here to find out more…

Take me to the next step in learning about managing change

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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