Changes in companies – hurdle and opportunity at the same time

Every optimization, regardless of whether it is a technological, process engineering or a organizational measure, usually requires an adaptation of behavior patterns. Adapting behaviour patterns, especially when the behaviour to be changed has been practised for years, is often not easy and in many cases represents a hurdle, the overcoming of which can often involve far-reaching problems. However, there are methods and tools that can support such change processes and contribute to increasing both the quality and the satisfaction of employees.

“We have been doing this for 15 years and it has always been good enough, why should we suddenly do it differently?

Anyone who tries to optimize processes or establish changes in companies has heard statements like the above. But why is that? Why do colleagues or employees sometimes so vehemently refuse to accept a change and implement it?

A Bain study showed: “Only twelve percent of companies successfully complete transformation processes, 20 percent fail. (Source:

But why is that? Why are changes always difficult to establish and why is it that improvements in production processes are not accepted or even boycotted by colleagues/employees?

“The cause lies in the psychology of the human being”

Numerous psychological studies exist on this subject, which attempt to understand and explain human behaviour and to sort it into comprehensible steps or phases. A small insight into this research on change management will be presented in the following.

A term that is repeatedly used in this context is the so-called comfort zone. The comfort zone describes an area of a person defined by habits in which he or she feels comfortable and secure.

In the literature, the existence of a comfort zone is often already assumed to be the primal human being: A cave once discovered and moved into is chosen as a place of refuge and a move to another region is out of the question, even if another cave is discovered which is perhaps larger, drier or better situated. Each of us knows this way of acting, either by ourselves or by people from our immediate surroundings, but the same is still true today. Who doesn’t know at least one person who likes to go to the same holiday resort year after year or who buys exclusively from his favourite baker?

The comfort zone describes the zone in which people like to move and it is easy for them to interact with the environment. In the comfort zone we feel safe, comfortable and self-confident. Here we are prepared for the things we encounter in everyday life and are not tempted by these things.

In addition to the comfort zone, the so-called three-sector model also includes the growth zone and the panic zone. If you leave the comfort zone due to your behaviour (or are thrown out due to a sudden circumstance – for example a change in the company), you automatically enter one of these zones.

In the growth zone, it is more difficult for us to act, we feel less secure than in our familiar environment, or the area of action and actions require more energy. This can give rise to unpleasant thoughts or even fears. Physical reactions can also occur when leaving the comfort zone. Examples are increased sweating, damp hands or trembling – such as during a presentation in front of many people.

The third zone, the so-called panic zone, is characterized by negative stress and uncertainty. If we are taken so far out of our comfort zone that we get into the panic zone, it is difficult for us to create things. Even tasks that would be easy to accomplish within our comfort zone can often not be accomplished at all or only with effort due to the feeling of discomfort. In the panic zone, we are only able to act to a limited extent; our aim is usually to get back from this zone to the comfort zone as quickly as possible, as long as there is a possibility of doing so.

The fact is: Nobody likes to leave their comfort zone!

But: How large the own comfort zone is, is very different and strongly dependent on the individual. In addition, the comfort zone is not static, but can change continuously and thus increase or decrease in size. The way in which we act in our lives leads to the fact that our comfort zone either expands or shrinks, in the end everything is a matter of training. People who are used to trying new things and are open to change unconsciously train their comfort zone and expand it so that a transition to one of the other zones becomes less likely and therefore less common.

The knowledge that these zones exist can therefore be very helpful in the figurative sense to establish changes in your own company and in particular to understand the behaviour of employees, colleagues or superiors.

Changes in 7 phases

Another aspect, which is helpful in this context to understand behavior patterns, is described in the so-called model of the “7 phases of change”. (Source: Gerhard Fatzer)

This model describes the perception of one’s own competence in the course of a change. The loss of perceived competence, in turn, can lead to leaving the comfort zone. Thus, both models are closely linked. The phases of this model are described in detail below.

The 7 phases of change:

  1. phase: Shock
  2. phase: Rejection
  3. phase: Rational Insight
  4. phase: Emotional acceptance
  5. phase: Learning
  6. phase: Knowledge
  7. phase: Integration

The introduction of a time recording system is used here as an exemplary scenario for a change that is often perceived as unpleasant, and the various phases are explained using this example.

Shock phase:

Immediately after the announcement of the change “Introduction of the time recording system”, the shock phase begins. In the heads of the coworkers the worst fears come out, how the work everyday life will probably change. People feel overwhelmed and unable to act. Everyone has to endure what happens and cannot change it. The perception of one’s own competence is at a low point.

Typical thoughts: “What effects will this have on our working hours? “Will we have to work more? “Do our superiors no longer trust us?” “Should we be more intensively controlled?”

Rejection phase:

The second phase is the rejection phase. In the rejection phase we try to hold on to the previous one and the previous one is glorified, whereas the new one is demonized. In the rejection phase the “active fight” against the change will be taken up. The attempt to defend oneself becomes stronger, this gives a feeling of ability to act, thereby the self-confidence increases temporarily. The perception of one’s own competence is almost at the level of origin.

Typical thoughts: “In the past everything was better, then we were still trusted”. “Let’s stick together and show them up there that we don’t let them do everything with us!” “Let’s strike or boycott the system.”

Phase of rational insight:

As change progresses, man begins to make friends with the thought. He thinks about the effects of the changes rationally and possibly starts to see advantages in them. The perception of one’s own competence sinks again, there comes the insight that one must first learn to operate the “new” state again.

Typical thoughts: “Then perhaps my boss will finally believe me that I work much more than my colleagues”. “Maybe then I’ll have the opportunity to get paid overtime.”

Phase of emotional acceptance:

After the head has already begun to come to terms with the fact that the change is not so wrong from a rational point of view, an emotional change also begins. The “old” is let go and we begin to make friends with the “new”. The own authority is however noticed as very small, it is clear that the change will come, one understood it rationally and accepted emotionally, but one feels nevertheless surprised and is uncertain which will come to one.

Typical thoughts: “I’ve always enjoyed it as it was, but I think it’s going to be good, maybe even better”. “Hopefully I can even operate this new system.”

Phase of learning:

The phase begins in which you actively deal with the new situation. The first training sessions are attended. Competence is actively built up. The perception of one’s own competence increases enormously.

Typical thoughts: “Oh, it’s not that difficult.” “But I thought it would be harder.”

Phase of cognition:

The full benefits of the measure can be seen and understood. Integration into everyday life begins. Fears fade as one’s own competence has grown considerably.

Typical thoughts: “The new system is great and brings me clear advantages”.

Phase of integration:

The goal has been achieved and integrated into everyday life. It now lies within the comfort zone of the human being and can be applied self-confidently and confidently. It becomes a routine.

The example is intended to show what happens in us humans when we are confronted with a change. Everyone will know a situation from his experience in which he has felt himself so much that something has been decided without his intervention. Everyone will also be able to understand that it takes a certain amount of time before the change can be accepted and implemented. Knowing the phase model described above helps tremendously to understand, accept and react sensitively to one’s own behaviour as well as that of employees, colleagues and superiors.

Advice on implementing change:

1. involvement of employees, motivation and communication

Move in your employees and colleagues. The more people can help shape their future and the earlier they are involved in the decision-making process, the less severe the shock will be. Communicate changes at an early stage. Changes that slowly announce themselves are perceived as less serious.

2. use the knowledge of the employees

The workforce has a great deal of knowledge that can be used meaningfully. Transfer responsibility to your employees so that they can play a part in shaping the company.

3. training, competence

When changing existing processes, the new process must first be learned. Support your staff in preparing for the new situation. In this way you achieve a situation in which the change does not tear the person so vehemently out of his comfort zone, he feels prepared, he knows what will come and he can deal with it. When you involve external support, you communicate the reasons for this.

4. perseverance

Prove stamina. Every change takes time. The more serious the change is, the more time is needed to establish it in the company. Be patient and still stay on the ball. A lack of stamina is one of the main reasons for doubts and the failure of a project.

“Imagine sailing out to sea with a ship. At some point the native disappears from your sight, but you do not yet see the port of destination. Stay on course, though.”

Change processes are an important component and incessant in all areas of the company. True to the motto: “If you stop getting better, you stop being good”, it is indispensable to implement and establish changes in companies. Basic knowledge of what happens in a person’s head when a change is announced helps to make the change process more efficient and effective.

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