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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

The 6 Stages of Behaviour Change

Anyone who has ever tried implementing a successful digital transformation programme can speak of the resistance they felt at one stage or another.

But anyone who has tried following through on a New Year’s resolution can relate to how difficult it is to change your behaviour, and getting detractors of your digital transformation programme onside is no different.

The most important aspects of understanding behaviour change are as follows:

  • Readiness to change - how well prepared is your workforce ahead of the impending change?

  • Barriers to change - what concerns do your workforce have?

  • Relapse Factors - what might cause relapse after behaviour change?

I wondered, are there any prescribed changes of behaviour? Is there a model or a step-by-step process that allows you to measure progress as well as plan future actions to ensure you keep nudging your workforce in the right direction?

I came across the 6 Stages of Behaviour Change, and this was exactly what I was looking for. Let me take you through it in a little more detail.

Stage 1: Precontemplation

This is often referred to as the denial stage and refers to the stage before people start contemplating change. At this point, they don’t believe a change is necessary and they are likely to significantly under-estimate or under-play the benefit of the change.

In a nutshell, stage one of behaviour change is that resistance that I referred to at the very beginning. Essentially, the company base is under-informed of the benefits of digital transformation and, often more importantly, the cost of falling behind.

The key to progressing from this stage is education and communication, can you effectively communicate the benefits of the programme you have designed? Can you educate them as to the reasoning and thinking behind the programme you have selected?

Stage 2: Contemplation

The benefits of change and, more importantly, the costs of not changing are starting to sink in. However, there’s still a lot of doubt over whether the change process is worth going through for, what are still in their eyes, relatively small-scale benefits. The cost of change is very much in balance with the benefit of change.

Change is tiring, it takes a lot of effort and often a significant time investment. The employee base is skeptical because it is aware of the investment in time and energy required to go through a process of change and it is still not sure whether, on balance, it is going to be worth it. There is still a lot of comfort in the current setup and would prefer to avoid a period of uncertainty.

The key to progressing from here is to personalise. They are in the room, they are listening, and they want to be convinced they’re just not convinced of exactly what it means for them, personally. How will it impact their day-to-day? What are the career opportunities associated with being part of this? What are the tangible benefits they can hold on to, less stress, more exciting working day, less manual work?

Stage 3: Preparation

The benefits are becoming clearer and with it the willingness to change. It’s a slow process but your employees are happy enough with what they have seen that they are willing to collect more information on their own.

Resistance to a big-bang change is still relatively high, but the employee base is happy to start exploring the success of pilot tests to see whether the results align with the theory.

The key to success in this stage is not to bite off more than you can chew, it has the potential to knock you all the way back down to resistance if you go too fast. Momentum is built up slowly and with each small win hearts and minds become increasingly assured, but it doesn’t happen instantly.

Stage 4: Action

The reason the majority of change programmes fail is because the majority skip straight to this stage. Without giving the previous stages enough thought and time, resistance is only going to increase by skipping straight to action. People feel caught out and this manifests itself as a threat.

At this stage the employee base is bought in to the success of the project, they have tangible evidence provided by the success of the pilot tests which gives them full confidence that the benefit of proceeding and the cost of inaction far outweighs the comfort of maintaining the status quo.

It’s at this point that you have officially succeeded, but it doesn’t end here……

Stage 5: Maintenance

This stage is about consciously applying new behaviours and avoiding falling back into old behaviours. It’s easy to fall into old habits, so it’s important to reinforce good behaviour with tangible metrics on improvements that help strengthen the message of why everyone went through the change process in the first place. Attaching it to company values using language like “innovation” and “industry-leading” helps employees feel good about what they’re doing and that it is part of the wider company purpose.

Stage 6: Relapse

Sometimes the temptation to revert back to old habits becomes too strong and relapse occurs. At this point it’s crucial to reassess the resources and techniques used so far to regain employee buy-in. Could the messaging and communication have been more powerful? When did the doubt creep in? Why did the doubt creep in? What do those employees who relapsed have in common? Do they stem from the same source?

Ultimately, change is difficult and there are never any guarantees. It’s easy to see just by looking at the complexity of the various stages that I have outlined above just how long winded a process it can be. And as humans we’re a fickle bunch, if doubt creeps in it gathers momentum at almost twice the rate that it took for buy-in in the first place. But that is the challenge all companies face, and it’s those that navigate this path most effectively that differentiate themselves out from the rest.

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