How to balance the rollercoaster of change


After leading several major transformation processes, it was my turn. I became redundant… An experience I still think back on often. Now you may be thinking: but why then? You have led numerous changes and transformations. You know what to expect. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Experiencing it firsthand is a whole different story. When change hits close to home, our brains tend to focus on what we stand to lose rather than what we might gain. We start to ask questions like: ‘What will happen to me, my job, do I have to re-apply for it or will I be made redundant?’

Have you ever found yourself on the receiving end of a significant change within your organization? Can you still remember what happened that moment? It’s a situation that sticks with you, right?

Almost everyone goes through this at some point in their lives and the fact that this happened has also brought me a lot. I can even say that anyone, who guides a transformation or change needs to understand what happens in our human system to achieve lasting change.

Let’s dive into the competing systems that will be activated while facing change.

Competing systems – system 1 & 2

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon in his book Thinking, Fast & Slow. He divides the brain into System 1 and System 2. While System 2 represents the rational part of our brain, it only accounts for a mere 2% and operates rather slowly. On the other hand, System 1 is the emotional, unconscious powerhouse that constitutes 98% of our thinking. It’s responsible for our survival instincts and works at lightning speed, often overshadowing System 2.

System 1 & 2 by Daniel Kahneman

So, what happens when a change is announced? Your unconscious System 1 will assess the message. And if it causes a situation that you fear, it will trigger an instinctive response based on three possible outcomes: Fight, Flight or Freeze. Your survival mode kicks in, leaving little room for System 2’s rational thinking.

And guess what? You’re not alone in this experience. It’s a common initial reaction we all have when faced with change. Each in our own way, we want to have an answer to: what is in this change for me.

When the dust settles, you might expect everyone to move forward together smoothly again. But there is no such thing as ‘everyone walking in the same direction, and at the same time’ through the change. In reality, navigating transformation is complex and challenging.

The emotional phases of the Change curve

After this first response of fight, flight or freeze, people will go through several stages. These stages are actually similar to those you experience during a loss.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the first to map out the successive emotional responses that occur during the grieving process: She identified five stages of grief or loss: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In an organisation that has embarked on a transformation journey, individuals also go through similar stages. These stages of change, based on the Kübler-Ross grieving stages, are also known as the Change Curve, which itself has seven phases 1) Shock; 2) Denial; 3) Frustration; 4) Depression; 5) Experiment; 6) Decision; and 7) Integration.

Understanding where people are on this curve provides valuable insights into their change journey.

The process of transition by John Fisher

Face the emotional rollercoaster

Let me share an example with you. I’m leading an agile transformation and the board just announced this major change. Departments are dissolving, tribes are forming, and teams are restructuring into squads and circles, embracing self-organisation. The very essence of leadership is transforming, and most functions will either vanish or evolve. On the positive side, new roles will emerge, and everyone has the opportunity to apply through the new agile hiring process.

Can you already sense what happens?

While the Board focuses on the positive aspects, the employees are anxious about their jobs and have tons of questions: What if I don’t get the new job that I apply for? How can I prove my capability for these unfamiliar positions? Can I be assigned to a role I haven’t chosen for? What if I don’t like that job? Do I have a choice? And what will happen to all the managers?

After the session, the gossiping and sarcastic jokes circulate, targeting leaders and the perceived shortcomes of the procedure.

‘Agile hiring process? There are only managers involved, so how ‘agile’ is that.

Fair? My manager doesn’t even know the word.’ Lobbying begins, with employees attempting to bypass the process through their managers. Some even consider leaving rather than embracing the change.

As you can see, all the stages of the Change Curve emerge. Can you recall experiencing these stages, and can you remember if you just went through them all in one go? The initial shock, the denial, frustration and depression?

When does that turn, you might wonder?

In the example I shared, the transformation involved a hiring process. After the initial shock, employees swiftly start to experiment. They become curious and eager to learn more about the new organisation. They take small steps to move forward.

However, it’s crucial to recognise that the change process isn’t completed at this point. What do you think will happen when an employee doesn’t secure their desired role, or is assigned a position they didn’t anticipate?

Exactly, the entire process starts over again. Even when employees do get the job, they might face setbacks into an earlier stage of the Change Curve as the job, or way of working is not what they expected, or they feel nostalgic for their previous colleagues and ways of working.

Slow down to make speed

As leaders and facilitators of change, you find yourselves in a position where you often wear two hats. On the one hand, you’re driving the change and have to be attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the employees in your department or team.

On the other hand, you are also an employee. Although you know that this transformation is the right thing to do, your job is heavily impacted. As an employee, you also go through the stages of the Change Curve yourself. It’s not an easy role to navigate.

Regardless of which hat you are wearing; your role is pivotal. Don’t fall into the trap of solely pushing and focusing on the gains. Often, it’s better to slow down and start by understanding where you and the employees are on the change curve. When everyone grasps the situation and its implications, they become better equipped to embrace the transformation and become ambassadors of change.

Making sense of the situation is what truly makes the difference. Take the time to acknowledge the emotional responses and provide the necessary support and guidance. This human-centered approach fosters a culture of trust and open communication, enabling a smoother transition.

Now it’s your turn

Reflect on your past experiences with change. How do you embrace the competing systems? Share your insights and stories with us in the comments below.

Thanks for reading this blog and looking forward to your response!

If you think this is of value to others, then please share it with your network. I would highly appreciate that.

I hope to meet you soon, AND feel free to add me to your network 😉

Every day is a great day to transform the way you change. Together we achieve more.

Learn. Transform. Thrive.

Have a great day!

Alize Hofmeester

It’s my purpose to spark the Human X-factor and create purpose driven spaces where everybody is able to grow. How? Put people & purpose at the heart of your organisation and drive your transformation People Led.

Passionated about living by purpose. Entrepreneur and founder of Twinxter and the TwinxterAcademy, Author of Purpose Driven People, creating business agility & sustainable growth, Co-author of Agile People Principles, Transformational Leadership in the fitness and physical activity sector & Emergence, Creator of the People Journey Circle, Keynote Speaker

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Alize Hofmeester


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