How Do Varying Change Adopters Hijack Attempted Change?

As a result of our personal origins, we each have certain tendencies that may reflect on our relationship with change and how we respond to it.

As a brand-new leader to the team, I can remember observing shared looks and even rolled eyes from the others upon my presentation on a new online implementation I was proposing. I had conducted ample research and had received some preliminary support from others, but there three or four on the leadership team who had influence over whether my change to our program would see the light of day. It wasn’t the first or only change I had proposed to the group as I felt strongly about improving our program for the disenfranchised population we were supposedly committed to serve effectively. I had quickly become the “change agent” within our organization and was not gaining and friends because of it.

I worked tirelessly to improve what I found to be an outdated and standardized modality of impacting hard to reach students. Through enhanced online tools and practices, I aimed to develop more personalized ways to enhance student performance. Through these efforts, there were many on board with the changes and welcomed the enhancements for student and teacher success. There were also those that fiercely resisted it to the point of outright hostility and even strategic efforts to remove me. Months of debates, battles and harsh attacks ensued until those resisting the change left the organization, somewhat traumatized by the change. This single experience unexpectedly carved a lifelong career of intrigue and continued research on the topic of change and the varying ways in which we each respond to it. 

I believe our personal experiences during formative years in our lives provide a foundation within each of us that impacts how we respond to future situations. These situations that may “feel” similar can cause a cascade of reactions that derail the trajectory of change in our lives. I have found there to be a distinct connection between these formative experiences—or as I like to call them, origins—and how they play out later in our lives as an Origin Response (OR) during dynamic change experiences, this creating a range of overall comfort with change.

Through my research and experience in personal and professional settings, I have observed that a person’s response to change often manifests in a variety of stages. Each stage can provoke a distinct and deep-rooted emotion, some of which is evoked by the immediate context and surroundings. In contrast, others emerge from deeply ingrained responses that were generated during formative experiences from our past.

I have outlined the change process into five stages that are common among many people, for which I use the acronym TRACK. TRACK provides a framework that helps us follow the stages through the change process in order to better support those navigating through it. This tracking system helps make some of the unpredictable emotions that are generated in ourselves and others during the change process become more predictable. This framework can also ultimately equip us with the awareness to prepare and support others through the sometimes-difficult stages of change. The five stages and the feelings they bring about in us are:

  1. Turmoil: apprehension, fear of the unknown and loss of control
  2. Regret: grief, disorientation, and confusion
  3. Adjustment: developing a vision, communication, and tenacity
  4. Commitment: empowerment, individualization, and creativity  
  5. Keep: revolutionize and evolution

As a result of our personal origins, we each have certain tendencies that may reflect on our relationship with change and how we respond to it. Consider a sudden change to the flight plan of an airplane mid-flight, and how effective it is in demonstrating how people respond to change. This example not only helps to expose general categories of change adopter categories, it can assist leaders in preparing for the different level of change adopters duringcritical change. Imagine the ecosystem of a routine airline flight that encounters a change in the conditions as described below:

  • Pilot (Leader): The pilots are leaders of the plane that deliver change initiatives along with vision and directives. They navigate extreme turbulence and make modifications to standard practices. Pilots must often adjust their settings, flight plans, and overall vision, and communicate that to their crew.
  • Crew (Change Implementers): The next level of leadership on the plane is the crew, who administer directives and oversee implementations. This team provides direction and guidance to each other and to all passengers to ensure alignment with the revised practices and overall flight plan. Ideally, all are invested in the revised initiatives and vision.
  • Obedient Passengers (Change Supporters): These are compliant passengers who exhibit buy-in to the change initiatives and overall vision. They are your standard passengers on the plane. They remain in their seats, keep their seat belts fastened, and comply with ongoing directives. They may even go so far as to help the crew with implementing the changes by supporting other passengers on the plane.
  • Disgruntled Passengers (Change Resistors): They are resistant to the change initiatives, and express frustration through a variety of measures, all destructive to the change and overall culture. These passengers disrupt progress toward the revised flight plan by hovering by the bathrooms when directed to stay seated, requesting additional accommodations, and complaining about any inconveniences. These passengers delay order and alignment to the practices necessary to achieve the overall vision of a revised, safe flight plan.
  • Those detained and arrested upon landing (Change Defiants): These passengers flat out lose all sense of reasonableness and sometimes express violent opposition to the new directives, and the crew and obedient passengers are likely required to detain them. They may even be sedated and, upon landing, be arrested and banned from the particular airline altogether.

To summarize, change participants are categorized as follows:

LeaderLead the change
ImplementorsAdminister directives and manage the change
SupportersComplaint and buy-in to the change
ResistorsResistant to the change
DefiantsOppose the change

As a leader during change, experiencing a breakdown within any category of change adopters can disrupt a change effort within any ecosystem. As a leader navigating change, relying on ongoing analysis of those being led can help identify the range of change capacity in individuals who can be called upon to help support or even help lead the change efforts. Combining the consideration of these categories of change adopters, along with supporting the variety of individualized ORs to change efforts, can help to inform preparation for navigating through the TRACK stages of change.

Empowered with the TRACK stages of change along with identified change adopters within their organization, leaders can equip themselves with planned actions to support the change process. As outlined below, actions are identified to support each type of change adopter to ensure that each participant level is being supported in a way that can ensure the change progresses.

Support for each Change Adopter Category

These support actions are generalized and would need to be more fully developed and planned out for a change initiative. It is important to note that support actions may vary based on an individual’s origins and how they interface with the pursued change. In order to counsel those with varying origins, the leader is tasked with the ongoing task of becoming familiar with individual tendencies and needs. The leader may also be required to make tough judgment calls on whether certain individuals and their resistant origins are too destructive to the change or overall organization. Much of the turmoil or destructive behavior can be assuaged if these action steps are taken and ensuring they take place can minimize the number of defiant participant during change efforts.

Considering these change adopter categories during change can not only inform leaders on how to support change participants, but also how to model a change supportive environment so that the overall organization is less change averse. These change adopter categories and treatment of each, can be applied to nearly every change scenario within any organization and can empower all types of change.

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