Four common responses to change in the workplace

Right now we’re in a time of large-scale change across various industries, workplaces and more accurately, a global level. 

Regardless of the scale of change, there are typically four main behavioural responses that people will have to change in a workplace context. It’s important for you as a manager or leader to know how best to support individual team members as they experience change.

By understanding the different ways people respond to change in the workplace, you will be better equipped to identify and discuss the roadblocks that stop your team in their tracks.

Keep on reading for a breakdown of four common responses to change and practical steps to manage your team members so they can come through the other side stronger than ever before.


4 Behavioural Responses to Change in the Workplace


Response to Change: Ignorance as Bliss

This response to change can be best described as having a ‘head in the sand’ approach. People in this state of mind float through the days and weeks in ignorant bliss because they fundamentally believe that nothing is really happening differently. 

These people stick their metaphorical fingers in their ears hoping that simply by ignoring it, change will go away. 

On the plus side, these are the people who keep the work ticking over. Of course, this is only useful if the work they’re doing is still relevant in the new environment.


Tips for Managing the ‘Blissed-Out Bunch’:

If you’ve noticed a team member doing work that’s no longer useful post-change, have the conversation early and deal with resistance to change using the ideas we share in Dealing with the Tough Stuff

Remember that if you hear, ‘I can’t’ during a conversation, it generally it means either, ‘I don’t know how to’, ‘I’m scared to’, or ‘I don’t want to’. Figure out which one it is and address it specifically.

The key to managing all four responses to change is to normalise the response, no matter which of the four they are stuck in. If your conversation with the other person comes across as judgemental or personal, they will resist the change even more. 



Response to Change: Seeking Opportunities

In every situation lies an opportunity for those who are willing to seek it and act on it. In fact, most small businesses are started because someone was frustrated by a roadblock they hit and decided to do something about it: the mum who starts an organic bamboo clothing line because her child has sensitive skin; the hipster 30-something who opens a coffee shop in their suburb because they couldn’t get a piccolo. Most great initiatives in workplaces start out the same way. 

In response to change, you may find that some of your team members seek out opportunities.



Tips for Managing the ‘Opportunity Seekers’:

Managing those who see possibility and opportunity in a challenge sounds like a dream come true, doesn’t it? It’s certainly the response to change and roadblocks that you want to see from your team, and what you want to role-model to others. It’s this second point that you need to focus on. 

All too often we hear risk-averse managers bemoaning their staff because they ‘want to do everything yesterday’. Get out of their way! Let them go – after setting some good guidelines for them. 

The key to managing an opportunity seeker is to encourage ideas and ownership while also keeping them focused on getting the ‘business as usual’ work done.



Response to Change: Awareness and Seeking

This type of response to change can be seen if you notice someone in your team ripping into what needs to be done in the here and now. 

You may find that a team member with this response wants to sit down with you one on one to get clear about the current situation in order to move forward. 

These people tend to be cautiously optimistic and are a great person to have in your team.



Tips for Managing ‘Seekers’:

These people are doers. They are the workers who see a problem and get it sorted straight away. While this works in the moment, this response can be narrow-focused, working only to get through the immediate challenges. The risk is that they may miss opportunities for a new project or a new way of doing the work. Manage this response by encouraging possibility thinking.

Give this team member a prompt to take some time out to consider all the different possibilities that could work to solve a problem or improve a process. A good brainstorming session can work wonders. It helps if you’ve got whiteboard walls – yeah, our office is covered in ‘em.

Now, possibility thinking doesn’t mean that we go after big lofty ideas and start implementing a concept with obvious flaws. Instead, possibility thinking is a mindset that encourages creative thinking that usually results in lightbulb moments that can change the course of a project or organisation for the better.



Response to Change: Awareness and Hiding

Another response that you may see from some team members is to hide. These people are aware that change is here but hide from any action that’s required.

They’ll spending their time stressing about the small stuff – anything that’ll busy them in an effort to avoid change. These are the worrywarts who seem to disappear from the room during conversations about the topic of change and progress – but they’re in your face about everything else.



Tips for Managing ‘Hiders’:

The frustration in managing this type of change response is trying to get people to have a sense of ownership about action. 

Manage this by having a one on one conversation outside of your usual environment (read: local café) where you openly discuss their concerns about change. This is an opportunity to better understand your team member while encouraging them to consider alternative perspectives.

From there, create an action plan with measurable steps – clear goal posts make all the difference.

Using the third-point communication technique can help in depersonalising a tough conversation like this. Be mindful to meet them on their level too – at the end of the day, we’re all human and our brains naturally perceive change as a threat. By letting them know it’s only human to be where they are, and then inviting them to co-create a vision of something bigger and better, you’ll create a deeper sense of trust that’ll come in handy when change rears its head in the future.


If you want to learn more about discussing conflict and change within your workplace do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Dealing with the Tough Stuff. It’s your go-to handbook on human behaviour and effectively navigating challenging conversations.