Whether it’s a move, an IT upgrade or a change to your personal or professional life, understanding how and why change happens can help you get through the process more easily. There is no one right way to manage change, but a number of theories can provide useful perspectives and guidance. In addition, learning about how and why people respond to change can be helpful in designing and implementing changes that are more likely to succeed.
Some people are receptive to change, while others are more resistant. The latter often have a misunderstanding of the change that is happening to them, which can lead to a resistance that takes them by surprise. To mitigate this, change managers must make sure to surface any misunderstandings and clarify them as quickly as possible.
Another approach to understanding change involves the notion that people go through a series of stages when they’re faced with a change. Psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente developed a model of change that suggests that there are five stages that a person goes through to adapt to a change, from not thinking about the change (Precontemplation) to making the changes (Contemplation) and finally to sustaining the new behaviors and attitudes (Maintenance). This model can help you understand why people sometimes resist change and how to support them through the transition.
A third theory on understanding change focuses on the motivations behind people’s decisions to adapt to change. This view posits that people adapt to change because they’re dissatisfied with the status quo, and they try to solve their problems by changing their environment. Dissatisfaction can be generated by a variety of sources, including economic pressures, competition from other companies or the desire to improve living conditions.
Evolutionary thought also dominated the emerging field of social and cultural anthropology in the second half of the nineteenth century, as researchers such as Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan classified contemporary societies on an evolutionary scale from animism to polytheism to monotheism. While this theory can be useful in some contexts, it’s not without its limitations. For example, it assumes that the progression from a primitive society to a civilized society is inevitable, which is not always the case.
As the world began to change at a faster pace, the old methods of managing change became less effective. By the 1950s, academics began to draw on biological and interpretive views of change, including biology’s natural processes and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the 1990s, researchers in fields such as chemistry and physics also started to use concepts from complexity theory to explain the nature of change. Nobel laureates such as chemist Ilya Prigogine and physicist Murray Gell-Mann contributed to these new approaches to understanding change. In the 21st century, these theories continue to be used in organizational change management.