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The Change Curve – How To Lead A Team Through Change

The Change Curve – How To Lead A Team Through Change

Why are breakups so hard and painful? Why is moving to a new country hard? Why does driving a different car seem uncomfortable? While the emotions of loneliness play a big role, the reason why you hate the feeling so much is – the change.

The change curve explains how people go through change in different phases be in an organization or in personal life.

This article covers:

  • How change works
  • The 4 phases of the change curve
  • The characteristics of each phase
  • How to handle each phase and the overall change better
The change curve

Whenever you encounter a change, you go through a process of acceptance and adaptation which happens over time, called the change curve. The time taken depends on your personality, the circumstances and the change itself.

For example, if you had to move your TV from one room to another, you might dislike the new arrangement for a few days but you will forget about it in a few days. If you moved to a new house, you would need a few weeks to adjust. If you moved to a new city or took up a new job, you might take months to get used to it.

Why do people fear change?

People fear change

Human beings hate change. You might consider yourself as flexible as a ballet dancer but your body does not accept change with open arms. Your brain prefers operating on familiar grounds.

For your body to function as normally, your neural cells have to put in a lot of effort. To simplify this effort, your brain builds routine around your habits allowing you to go through your day on autopilot.

Imagine having to tie your shoelaces by thinking how to do it every single time. Now multiply that effort with breathing, walking, processing objects you see or reacting to danger. If every little action required conscious thought, your brain would need a lot more energy and processing power.

Instead, the brain prefers imbibing behaviors as a part of your routine. A part of your brain called basal ganglia controls your habits. Visualize your brain like an onion with layers and start peeling it layer by layer.

The basal ganglia lie deep within after you have stripped off the most part. Your brain has carried over that part over millions of years of evolution from mammals even before human beings came into existence.

Basal ganglia require little to no brainpower to perform tasks out of habit such as talking, walking or observing. But if you have to apply thought, your neocortex comes into the picture. Your neocortex makes you a smart animal and is the reason why you make plans, solve problems and innovate.

But the higher quality of thought comes at the cost of time and energy. Conscious thinking is slower and taxing on the brain. The proof lies in how heavy your head feels after hours of solving a problem. If you jogged for an hour, you would no doubt be exhausted physically but your brain would remain fresh.

Your brain prefers equilibrium, called homeostasis. Any change, positive or negative, acts as a disruption of equilibrium. As a result, your brain fights the idea of giving up bad habits and cultivating good habits.

You might consider your brain as the devil because it makes you crave for a cigarette after you have given up smoking or coaxes you to stay at home instead of building a habit of working out. But you are not at fault for such behavior because your brain is only battling against the equilibrium which you helped it build.

It’s not you, it’s me evolution.

How does your brain react to change

Every time you go through a change, your brain goes through a series of phases called the change curve. The concept was first proposed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

She proposed that any patient who knows he is suffering from an incurable disease went through different stages of grief due to the psychology of change resistance. The same theory applies to various aspects of life and experts in management have performed extensive studies on it.

The originally proposed theory is also called the Kubler Ross Change Curve. John Kotter has applied the same concept for leadership in his book, Leading Change. Therefore the model is sometimes referred to using the term, Kotter Change Curve. It is one of the different change models, with other examples being ADKAR and Lewin’s Model.

For example, let us take two different cases where you face a big change. One is a change related to relationships and the second applies to work.

1. You are going through a break up because your partner dumped you

2. The technology that you have learned for years is being wiped out of the market and you have to now learn a new mechanics from scratch

As you read through the rest of the article, you will notice how strikingly similar your thought process is even though both these changes seem like polar opposites.

What are the 4 stages of the change curve?

Any significant change goes through 4 different stages of the change cycle as shown below. The curve is also called the change curve diagram. I will talk about both the example cases stage by stage.

Change Curve Diagram

Stage 1 – Denial:

Stage 1 - Denial

The first part of the change is refusing to accept that the change has occurred. You avoid the topic like nothing happened and even continue doing things like before. You will find a million reasons to blame others for the change and even refuse to accept that the change is impacting you.

In simple words, you are in denial and your behavior is an emotional response to change.

Denial after a break up:

When your partner has dumped you, initially you act as if nothing happened. You believe the break up did not bother you. You might even assume that the break up is temporary and your partner will come running back to you soon.

Denial after a technology change:

Even after the new technology has taken over, you still believe that the old one is still the best. You manage to do a few things which the new technology is boasting about by using the old methods. You consider the new technology an unnecessary hype and believe that people will roll back to the old standards sooner or later. You do not bother laying a finger on the new technology.

Stage 2 – Resistance:

Stage 2 - Resistance

As time goes by, you realize things won’t return to normal. You fear that the change is real and to make it worse, permanent. You feel hurt, demotivated and overwhelmed. You go quiet and speak little about the change. You feel helpless, snap at the change and question the decision.

But somewhere deep down you realize the change is more significant than you thought before. You no longer deny that the change is happening but neither do you accept it. So what do you do? You resist it. You find faults with the new methods, find cases where they are not working and try to stay afloat between the old and new methods.

The first two stages, denial and resistance are considered the left side of the curve. The bottom of the resistance phase, the lowest point in the curve is called the valley of despair.

Resistance after a break up:

When you do not hear back from your partner and your attempts at a patch up fail, reality sinks in. You start fearing the fact that your partner isn’t coming back. You try to talk to your partner and make things work but when your attempts fail, you turn angry and helpless. Stalking is a common outcome of resistance.

You reject the idea of dating new people because you feel the last one was the best and you cannot accept a new relationship. You come up with reasons to console yourself like how your partner accepted for what you are, how the chemistry between you two was incredible and what not.

Resistance after a technology change:

When you notice your favorite technology fading out little by little, you become annoyed. But you also realize how the new technology is taking over and doing better things that your technology no longer can. Therefore, you resist by fighting it.

You mention the areas which you tried but failed in the new methods. You come up with reasons why the new style consumes more time or why the old technology was better.

Stage 3 – Exploration

Stage 3 - Exploration

Stage 3 onwards is considered the right side or the positive part of the curve. After resisting and fighting endless battles, you accept that you need to change. If you reach this phase, you have entered the right side of the change curve.

Though you still dislike the change, you start attempting to make things work. You spend time planning, generating ideas and taking risks. You get over your ego, start seeking help and also offer help. You start thinking that maybe you can adapt to the new change.

But because you entered the exploration phase, it does not mean that you can’t slip back into resistance. People bounce between these two phases often and even more than once.

Exploration after a break up:

As more time passes by, you realize your relationship with your partner has reached closure. You start socializing with new people, go out on dates and consider the possibility of a new relationship. But at times, you relapse back into old feelings by comparing your new date with your previous partner. You refrain from entering a new relationship because it feels different even if you meet a person who treats you better than your previous partner did.

Exploration after a technology change:

Over time you realize that you have to learn the ropes of the new technology. You start experimenting and like certain aspects of it. Some new features lead you to believe that maybe you can make it work and become an expert on the subject.

You start grasping knowledge from the experts and share your learning with others. You try out new features available to see what you could do better.

At times, when parts of the new technology seem hard because you haven’t developed enough expertise yet, you fall back into your favorite old technology due to familiarity.

Stage 4 – Commitment

Stage 4 - commitment

By this point, you are over the past, looking forward to the future. You no longer compare old vs new. You feel in control of the fresh atmosphere you have embraced. When you face a challenge, you think hard for a solution. You have gained most of the knowledge required to operate in the new world.

Once you are in the commitment phase, the chances of slipping back into the other faces are unlikely. Once people enter this phase, Monday blues no longer occur.

Commitment after a break up:

After going on a few dates, you understand that every relationship has flaws and your last one did too. You learn to look at your current relationship from a new angle. You consider your current partner as the best ever and wonder why did you even have to be in your old relationship.

At this point, even if your old partner wanted to reconcile, you would turn it down without any thought. You love the relationship you are currently in.

Commitment after a technology change:

Once you get the hang of the new technology, you realize how cool the features are and how simple it is to implement them. You laugh at yourself for doing things the hard way earlier. You pull up your socks to develop expertise in the new subject and learn new things on your own every day.

Related article: Feynman Technique – Learn Any Topic Quickly in 4 Easy Steps

How to handle change:

When it comes to significant change, you might find yourself in two different spots.

1. You are experiencing the change yourself

2. You are around people who are going through the change. You might be the leader or manager responsible to guide people through the change.

1. Identifying and acting on denial

How to identify denial

When people go through denial, people utter something on the lines of:

  • This change won’t affect me
  • The whole thing will fail soon and things will be like before
  • I won’t worry about this
  • The change is only temporary

What actions should you take as a leader on denial

Keep calm
  • Do not take drastic actions for denial
  • Know that such behavior is expected and normal
  • Give people the time they need
  • Do not try to rush people into the right side of the curve

2. Identifying and acting on resistance

How to identify resistance

Most often, people in resistance say things like:

  • I already tried and it did not work
  • We do not have the time it needs
  • This part failed badly
  • I am waiting for …

What actions should you take as a leader on resistance

Show empathy
  • Allow people to feel the change themselves
  • Talk to people as a team
  • Do not try to convince people by logic because when people are fighting the change even the most sensible facts will only fall on deaf ears
  • Just listen to people venting out

3. Identifying and acting on acceptance

How to identify acceptance

Here are the words people use when they move into acceptance:

  • Let me see what I can do about this
  • I have some ideas
  • Maybe we can do it this way
  • As a team, we can find a solution

What actions should you take as a leader on resistance

Give enough time
  • Be aware that people can slip from acceptance to resistance multiple times
  • Do not expect everyone to move from the left to the right side of the curve in the same duration
  • People need to move into acceptance on their own without your force
  • Reward and motivate when people show attributes of acceptance

4. Identifying and acting on commitment

How to identify commitment

People say and behave as stated below when they finally move into commitment

  • I have come a long way
  • I don’t want to go back ever
  • I have grown a lot through the change

What actions should you take as a leader on commitment


Well, the commitment phase is the happiest place for the leader and there is little you need to do. But do not forget to take the time to celebrate and have fun.

Some facts about the change curve you need to know

  • Change is upsetting and a disturbance to the equilibrium your brain prefers
  • Everyone looks at the same change from a different lens, the lens of their own eye, not yours
  • Different people take different routes and display contrasting behavior in each stage
  • Some people may never make it from the left side to the right side of the curve
  • It is normal for people to go through the phases of change and when people do, do not assume that the person isn’t the same anymore


Change is never easy and never will be. You cannot stop hating change. If you find a massive change easy, you are almost certainly in denial.

Do not try to rush through a change and do not expect your behavior to match that of somebody else during the course of change.

Do not force yourself through the change either. You have to go through the change curve at your pace. Since you know what behavior human beings exhibit during a change, remain patient and let the change sink in with time. The more you rush, the harder the change will feel.

Do not let a change bother you too much because after all, the only predictable thing about change is that there will be another one sooner or later.

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