The concept of the change curve isn’t new. However, with COVID-19 changing the way employees are working and businesses are functioning, it is relevant to businesses right now. As peoples’ attitudes shift between denial, resistance, exploration and acceptance, there is an opportunity to view these phases through the lens of behavioural biases and create more tailored engagement programmes. Here’s how.

Denial

When change is first introduced, such as remote working, taking a pay cut or being furloughed, it is not easy for people to accept, launching them into denial.

The reasons for this are complex and vary from situation to situation, but there are common behavioural responses, such as the status quo bias, for example. This bias is defined by a strong preference for our current situation, where the current baseline is taken as a reference point and any change is perceived as a loss (which we strongly want to avoid). Loss aversion is also closely linked to the status quo bias. This tells us that we are much more likely to take risks to avoid the pain of loss, as losing something is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something.

How to respond? 

It’s important to give people breathing space to experience grief in this phase and not to rush them. Too many positive messages at this stage will be at best ineffective and – at worst – could result in you activating the reactance bias, which refers to our tendency to do the opposite of what we’ve been asked if we’re pushed.

Where possible, provide compulsory defaults, for example training sessions or briefings. This is because part of the pain of change is the extra mental effort required to understand new ways of working and providing firm defaults could remove some of this.

The spacing effect also tells us learning is more effective when study sessions are spaced out – so put effort into spacing out the messages you need people to absorb in a way that makes it easier for them.   

Resistance 

The denial phase is normally followed by a period of resistance, which begins as people realise there is no way to avoid change. This is something we are seeing manifest in the US anti-lockdown protests. During this stage, people often feel angry and anxious.

Here, people may be affected by the autonomy bias, which is when they need to feel like they are making their own choices. It’s also likely that, having decided the change is negative or “won’t work anyway”, people could now fall prey to confirmation bias. This is a type of cognitive bias that compels us to actively look for information to confirm our existing beliefs (and shun anything that doesn’t support them). 

How to respond?

Provide forums and tools to acknowledge (rather than respond to) employees’ feelings. Try to offer them opportunities to make some small, personal choices for themselves, to salve the wound of the removal of autonomy.

This is a good time to take advantage of the curiosity tendency bias: we have an innate desire to seek more information – so think about how you could activate curiosity with “pull” rather than “push” messaging in this phase. Use playful and mysterious cues to try and draw people in.

Once you have piqued curiosity, build on this using the “foot in the door” bias. Research shows that people are more likely to agree to a large request in the future after having agreed to a small step first.

Exploration 

The exploration phase is where team members should start to feel a part of the change. It’s vital you provide meaningful roles for people so they feel they can actively participate. They may now be affected by hedonic adaptation, meaning they feel less and less discomfort for a perceived loss as time goes by.

Dynamic norms may also start to be at play. This is where people are affected by the behaviour of those around them and are more likely to change their behaviour and attitude if they can see others around them changing theirs.

How to respond?

This is a more positive phase, so ensure you have the resources to allow and encourage active participation. Capitalise on the storyteller bias, which shows that we’re more persuaded by those who tell stories. Recruit and showcase employee champions of the new status quo and have them share their stories. We’re hardwired to copy the behaviours of others, especially in unfamiliar situations, so it is vital to have those active champions and stories on display.

Finally, the Ikea effect states that we value things we have helped create much more than things we were not involved in – so it’s imperative people have the opportunity to contribute to the change process.

Acceptance 

As team members begin to feel more in control of their new roles, they should now be engaged, co-operative, and actively working towards the new normal. If most people have made the transition, you can rely on a mixture of newly embedded norms and social proof to reinforce the change.

However, people change at different rates. Some may have been left behind in the earlier phases of the change curve. This is particularly true in a turbulent period, such as now. It’s worth carrying on with some of your resistance and exploration phase communications tactics, to help reinforce the transition for all.