Managing Change

Managing change in the workplace can be tricky.

Your brain doesn’t want to change.

Your brain is lazy. But guess what, so is mine.

Maybe now you’re thinking, “Ahhh, wait a second. I thought the goal of reading your messages was to inspire me–not insult me!?”

I want to get your attention–not insult you.

And please keep reading because a compliment is coming your way. 

Here are some facts about change:

1.     Change is hard. 

2.     Change is everywhere.

3.     Most of us don’t want to do things differently than the day before. 

It’s out your window (“What’s with this crazy weather?”), in the news (“What?! Ugh.” or “Yes! They won!”), at the store and gas pump (“It’s how much?!”), or in many emails/slacks/calls/texts (you can insert some examples for this on your own).

Some things we don’t want to change. Me, too. This week my “No, don’t change!” example is the pee wee golf course in Guerneville, CA. 

I went there this week with my daughter and her friends, and yep, so much of the course is just like it was when I was a kid.

The course was built in 1948, and some of the dinosaurs (see above) were installed in 1968. 

Not bad for an area of the fixtures have survived decades of floods. Here’s the same dinosaur in February 2017. You get a glimpse of the photo before the paywall comes up (I get it, but, wow, let me read just one article before asking me to pay). 

Obviously, some change, like flooding, is terrible. However, a lot of change is good and necessary. 

Enough about pee wee golf! Back to work!

No inspirational quotation will make managing change in the workplace easier for you and your team. 

The short of it is that we do what is easiest, fastest, and what we’re familiar with. 

While our brains are incredible, they don’t like to work hard. 

Angela Lee at Columbia Business School wrote this (I wish I had):

1.     Our brains are wired for laziness.

2.     Our brains’ capacity is limited.

3.     Our brains don’t like change.

Anything from changing where you sit at work (or home) to your favorite brand of chocolate to how you approach most tasks, meetings, and people at work . . . is tough. 

Our brains are designed to work as little as possible and keep moving down the road of consistency. 

“Another day. Same thing as yesterday!” is the best meme ever to your brain. 

“But I’m a VP/CEO/Ph.D, so like, Leila, it’s easier for me.”

I give you a pass if your doctorate is in brain science, leadership, or psychology. For the rest of you, here’s an easy model to help you and your team plot where and why you get stuck with change.

A change model has been around for a while in varying forms. While some people love it, some groan that it’s time to give up on it. 

It’s called SARA, and it takes inspiration from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist. 

SARA stands for:





It’s often called the change swing or change model. Down below, I also have some notes on two other models worthy of your time and effort.

Think of it as a beautiful, strong rope swing on a sturdy branch. You know how this works. You jump on with enough power for a good swing and let go of it at just the right time, landing in a beautiful cool river. Fun, right?

Now let’s think of it as the change swing. In this scenario, we want to try and move ourselves and our teams through shock, anger, resignation, and land on acceptance (the beautiful, cool river). 

It’s not automatic. It doesn’t happen in a couple of minutes, a couple of days, a couple of hours, or even a couple of weeks. We don’t want to put too little effort into communicating, discussing, and understanding where people may have landed when they jumped off the swing. 

Most often, people get stuck between anger and resignation. It’s like they are hanging at the end of the rope, and it stopped swinging. They can’t let go because it would be dangerous if they were suspended over hard ground or shallow water.

It’s a dangerous place for leaders and for organizations to be.

Plot yourself on the SARA model right now. Think of a recent change at work. Such as:

  • You got a new boss
  • You’re going “back to the office,” and you’re hesitant about it
  • Someone got promoted, and you didn’t
  • A top performer you admired just quit
  • Your organization is going through an acquisition

Are you shocked about this change? Angry? Resigned? Or raring to go?

Let’s take a look at what each of these phases looks like:


Oh, my gosh, what’s happening? This is crazy. I don’t understand. I’m just totally shocked. It’s unbelievable.


Why is this going on? Why is this happening to me? This is so wrong. I’m angry.


Sigh. This is terrible. It’s so annoying. Oh, well, there’s nothing I can do. I’ll just have to accept it. 


Okay, I’m there. I understand.

As a leader, I want you first to understand how you feel about a change at work–before you can go out there and authentically swing your team over to the other side. 

What does my team need to accept/learn and do/edit/change so we can [insert the reason]?

There’s change all around us all the time—so why people don’t get it?

Why do employees not understand why things are changing?

We explained what we were doing in the town hall last week. Why are people asking more questions?

As I said before, change is everywhere, but knowing and understanding that doesn’t make it any less difficult for the things we are accustomed to being different around us.

It’s human nature to want things to remain the same. It’s not a judgment, and the fault lies with no one. It is easier for you to do the same things you did yesterday and the same thing tomorrow. Habits are hard to change.

As humans, that’s just how we’re geared and how we operate. 

Another way to approach managing change in the workplace is to think about how different people react to change differently. 

It’s really easy to think that other people have the same emotions as us. Especially in this pandemic environment, it’s easy to assume that everyone else is acting and feeling the same way you are. If you’re ready to return to the office, you may have difficulty understanding why another person isn’t. 

So you really have to think about where you are on that change swing and recognize that your team members may not be in the same place you are. Most people don’t move through the phases of change quickly and may be stuck. They may need time and support. It’s also important to recognize that once they reach acceptance, that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with everything and love the new circumstances. They have accepted what needs to be done and what the organization needs from them. And that’s okay. 

Want to know more about managing change in the workplace?

I have 5 minutes! Then you have enough time to check out William Bridges’s model. Worth the 5 minutes.

Got 15 minutes? Check out this overview of John Kotter’s 8-step process. I go back to Kotter’s model again and again when working with executive teams to help them move their organizations through Change. 

More from John Kotter: an HBR article from August 2021 about surviving vs. thriving

OK, I’m ready to read a book!

Here’s what I want you to read:

Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times

It’s not the updated version of Kotter’s masterpiece Leading Change, yet a new take with more thinking about how and why your brain is resistant to change. Amazing.

Another great one is Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change by William Bridges.

To sum it up, your mind doesn’t (initially) want to change the way it thinks, yet it can, and once you give it some help, it can go all in and carry the flag for the change you want to make for your team—more on that next week.