Leading through the change curve requires leaders to respond appropriately at each stage, broadly progressing from directing to empowering. This post details the symptoms of being in each stage. It also explains an appropriate leadership response for employees in each of the stages.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Leading Through the Change Curve

Change affects people. Once a change process starts, individuals go through a series of stages that affect their engagement and performance. Individuals will behave in slightly different ways at each of these stages. And the way that leaders should lead changes depending on which state of the change curve the people they are working with are in.

This isn’t always easy for the leader as they are often experiencing their own emotional responses to change. However, it’s important to remember that they are usually further along their change journey than their teams.

We consider each of the main stages of the change curve below. We also provide details of how individuals at that stage may act, and how leaders can best respond.

Diagram of Leading Through The Change Curve

As noted in our change curve post, sometimes slightly different names are given to the stages of the curve. For example, in our description below we have acceptance and exploration as sequential stages and we include a final “growth” stage. These aren’t included in our diagram above.


Symptoms and Behaviors

Boy hiding eyes, representing denial stage of Leading Through The Change Curve
If I close my eyes, it isn’t really happening.

When engaged about the change, individuals in the denial stage may be prickly. They will probably be:

  • Defensive to feedback (particularly about the change),
  • Apathetic,
  • Closed off in their behavior,
  • Potentially passive, and
  • Withdrawn.

Leadership Approach

When leading individuals in the denial stage, leaders should adopt a directive approach. They should focus on telling, explaining, informing, listening, instructing, asking questions and providing feedback. This direct approach is needed because individuals may not be in a position to take ownership or use their own initiative.

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Resistance (Anger, Bargaining & Depression)

Symptoms and Behaviors

The resistance stage may lead individuals to push back against the change, as the name suggest. Individuals may:

Fighting stance demonstrating resistance stage of Leading Through The Change Curve
Resistant people may be aggressive, but not usually physically so.

  • Be aggressive to comments about the change or to feedback,
  • Appear hostile and defiant,
  • Be angry with the world,
  • Opt out of situations, and
  • Withdraw or “work to rule”.

Leadership Approach

When leading individuals who are in the resistance stage, it’s important to remain calm and supportive and to be understanding of the position the individuals are in. Leaders should support, instruct, show and demonstrate how things should be done and listen to and observe the actions of their team members. They should also provide gentle and considered feedback on some specific things, where doing so will be helpful and constructive.

Though listening to individuals is highly important at this stage, leaders must make sure that they do not validate the negative views that individuals may express about the change.


Symptoms and Behaviors

Individuals at the acceptance stage start to accept the change and want to be able to embrace it. They will increasingly be ready for feedback and respond to it more positively. However they will also feel some:

  • Anxiety about the future,
  • Guilt about their prior resistance, and
  • Confusion about how they are to progress.

Leadership Approach

Leaders should be supportive, but probably not hold their employee’s hands.

To lead individuals at the acceptance stage requires a supporting approach. Leaders should support, counsel, show empathy and listen well. They should also start to empower a bit more by setting short term goals for the individual and giving them some space to deliver them in their own way.


Symptoms and Behaviors

Individuals at the exploration stage have accepted the change and are starting to understand what it means for them. At this stage they start thinking about the future and their place in it. They will be increasingly aware of the big picture and increasingly making a conscious effort to be part of it. They will be more:

  • Open,
  • Inquisitive,
  • Thoughtful, and
  • Responsive to feedback.

Leadership Approach

As individuals start to explore, leader should respond by becoming more encouraging. Leaders should answer questions, encourage forward thinking, provide advice and reinforce the future. They should also start to set medium term goals for their individuals and give them increasing space to achieve them.

As their employees grow in confidence, this might also be the time for leaders to start to introduce a more coaching approach to their leadership.

Exploring can be fun


Symptoms and Behaviors

At the commitment stage, individuals have fully embraced the change, are committed to the future that it represents and become proactive in their approach.

They are comfortable with feedback and usually motivated to achieve the next stages of change. They are also confident and energetic and the anxiety and fear that they have been experiencing starts to fall away.

Leadership Approach

When leading individuals who are at the commitment stage, leaders should increasingly step away and give their people space to perform and own their tasks.

Leaders can be more empowering and coaching later in the change curve.

Leaders should adopt a more coaching approach to leadership. They should see their role as being to facilitate the success of others. At this stage, leaders should be sharing ideas, providing feedback, advising and looking at ways that they can stretch their individuals to improve their performance and development.


Symptoms and Behaviors

Individuals at the growth stage have completed their change journey and are embracing the future and growing and developing in it. At this stage, they are likely to be:

  • Confident and creative in their work,
  • Owning what they do, and
  • Looking to proactively improve their delivery.

Leadership Approach

When leading individuals in the growth stage, leaders should consider themselves more as mentors than anything else. The should still listen and coach, but they should also challenge and ask questions to support growth. At this stage the individual is truly driving their own delivery and the role of leaders is primarily to guide and support.

Soccer Goal representing goal setting as a leadership tool when Leading Through The Change Curve
Individuals in the growth stage benefit from more stretching goals.

Our online course on leading change brings together several theories of change and gives a great grounding in how to think about and lead change in an inclusive way. You can purchase it on Udemy.

Learning More

There are several different models that look at personal change. These include Bridges’ transition model and the Transtheoretical Model. In addition, you might like to read about the ABC framework for overcoming stress.

From a leadership perspective, authentic leadership might be helpful in all of these stages. You can listen to our podcast about it below:

The World of Work Project View

We think the change curve is a good model. We also think leaders should think about varying their leadership styles to support their teams through it. While we broadly like the guidance that we’ve captured here, we think some of it is a bit over engineered.

The core take away from this should be that when people are in a bad emotional place (early on the change curve) they may need to be directed. This is because they may not really have the emotional capacity to lead themselves. As they progress through the curve and become more settled, they have more emotional and mental capacity. As this happens, leaders should be more empowering and let them get on with things.

Our Podcast

Our Podcast is a great way to learn more about hundreds of fascinating topics from around the world of work.

This post has been informed primarily by our experiences over our careers and the leadership programs we’ve delivered in the past. There is a wide range of content available on the internet in relation to leading through the change curve.

We’re a small organization who know we make mistakes and want to improve them. Please contact us with any feedback you have on this post. We’ll usually reply within 72 hours.