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The Psychology of Change

written by: Jean Scheid • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 4/22/2013

In every project, things change. It might be scope or resources or, most likely, budget. Learn about a person's change psychology and how you can help them embrace project change.

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    Change is Inevitable

    If you're a project manager, you know that the one thing you can count on in any project is change. In fact, even if you're a team member or stakeholder, you know this to be true. If you're following true Change Management guidelines, your approach to any change in a project should be "structured" according to a plan that allows the project scope, resources or cost to "change" from the original state to the changed state.

    609 3770398 But, let's be real for just a moment.

    Change can be stressful. It's hard on the team members because you've just adjusted their workload in some meaningful way. It's hard on the project stakeholders because it means their original vision has been modified. It's hard on the project manager because someone has to keep track of all of this information. And, it's often hard on the project budget.

    These stresses frequently represent the surface of your change roadblocks. The root of it is simply a resource management issue. The simple truth is that most people don't like change they didn't envision themselves.

    That's it.

    If I didn't think of it - if it's not my idea - then I'm simply not invested in the outcome. And, once you know this basic underlying truth, you can then take steps to help everyone involved in the project become invested in whatever change crops up.

    The ways that you overcome these roadblocks definitely depend on your specific environment. But, there are few key concepts that you can put into practice as a project manager.

    Processing Change

    The first was presented by an early 1900's, German-born psychologist, Kurt Lewin. Dr. Lewin is known for many areas of behavioral research including an early model of how people process change. He described change as a three-stage process:

    • Unfreezing
    • Change
    • Freezing

    In the first stage, unfreezing, Dr. Lewin believed that a person's natural defense mechanisms needed to be bypassed. This natural response is based on their current mind-set, or direction. Consider a person who is heading North. Then, along comes the project manager and asks them to head South. Their first response, or current mind-set, is to dig in their heels and protest that they are already heading north and have been for quite some time. To ask them to turn around and move in the opposite direction can make them feel as though the distance they have covered thus far was a complete waste of time.

    Once a person overcomes their initial reaction, Dr. Lewin believed actual change in their state of mind could occur, albeit not without some confusion. But, at the very least, a person has a new direction with which to replace to old.

    Finally, in the third stage, a person finally reaches "freezing." In this stage, what was new now becomes the old as a person fully embraces their new mind-set, or direction.

    Be sure to read the second article in this series as we discuss how to help your project team overcome their natural psychological change roadblocks.

Change Management Psychology & Roadblocks

In every project, things change. It might be scope or resources or, most likely, budget.
  1. The Psychology of Change
  2. How to Overcome Change Roadblocks