In the early ’80s, while involved in research to identify patterns of change-related success and failure, I learned that the winners and losers in this arena demonstrated very different levels of resolve. As a result, I developed the following model, which describes how and when people become committed to major new organizational requirements. (Click here to download a printable worksheet of the Commitment Model to help you identify a person’s or group’s level of commitment.)

The vertical axis represents the degree of support for the new mindsets and behaviors, and the horizontal axis reflects the passage of time. The model consists of three developmental phases—Preparation, Acceptance, and Commitment—and the stages unique to each phase. Each stage represents a juncture critical to the development of commitment to change. A positive perception of change may stall (depicted by downward arrows) or increase (represented by an advance to the next stage). In addition, as people learn more about the change and what it will require, they may return to earlier stages in the process. The successful transition through a particular stage serves as the basis for experiencing the next stage.

Preparation Phase

The Preparation Phase forms the foundation for later development of either support of or resistance to the change.

There are two stages in the Preparation Phase:

  • Contact
  • Awareness

Stage I: Contact

Stage I is the first encounter individuals have with the fact that a change is taking place in the organization that will require them to shift their behavior and/or thinking. Methods for delivering the first contact message can vary. There is a wide range of options including memos, staff meetings, personal contact, and other mechanisms.

Regardless of the method, this first stage in the commitment process is intended to result in awareness that a change has taken place or may occur in the future. Since momentum and critical mass of commitment is essential to change success, careful attention should be given to how early contact (as well as later stages) will begin to promote the right energy movement toward realization.

Contact efforts, though, do not always produce awareness. It’s important to separate contact efforts from people being aware of change…it’s dangerous to assume contact and awareness are synonymous. Sponsors and change agents are often frustrated when, after many meetings and memos about an initiative, some targets either are not prepared for the change or react with total surprise when it begins to affect them.

There are two possible outcomes for the Contact Stage:

  • Awareness, which advances the preparation process
  • Unawareness, in which no preparation for commitment occurs

Stage II: Awareness of Change

Awareness is established successfully when individuals realize that modifications affecting them have occurred or are pending. It requires that initial communications about the change reach the desired audiences and convey the message clearly.

This awareness, however, does not mean people have a complete understanding of how the change will affect them. They may not have an accurate picture of the scope, nature, depth, implications, or even the basic intent of the change. For instance, targets may perceive that a change is coming without knowing the specific ways they will need to alter their mindset and behaviors. Before targets can progress toward acceptance, awareness must be developed into a general understanding of the change’s implications.

There are two possible outcomes for the Awareness Stage:

  • Understanding, which advances the process to the Acceptance Phase
  • Confusion, which reduces or precludes preparation

Acceptance Phase

The Acceptance Phase marks passage over the Disposition Threshold. This is an important momentum and critical mass milestone; people shift from seeing the change as something “out there,” to seeing it as having personal relevance. This perspective enables them to make decisions about accepting or not accepting their part in the change.

People often engage in individual activities designed to move themselves across this threshold in order to proceed from awareness to understanding. They ask questions, pose challenges, seek additional information, and make inferences in an effort to clarify their picture of the change. Sometimes leaders wrongly interpret this behavior as resistance to the change initiative. Although it is possible for people to use endless questions and challenges as part of their resistance strategy, true resistance to the specific change at hand (rather than to the notion of change in general) can be manifested only when people understand it well enough to be able to formulate an informed opinion.

There are two stages of the Acceptance Phase:

  • Understand the Change
  • Positive Perception

Stage III: Understand the Change

In Stage III, people show some degree of comprehension of the nature and intent of the change and what it may mean for them. As they learn more about the initiative and the role(s) they are likely to play, people begin to see how it will affect their work and how it will touch them personally. These insights enable them, for the first time, to judge the change.

Each person’s judgment is influenced by his or her own cognitive and emotional filter systems—the unique set of lenses that he or she uses to view the world. In addition, change of any significance usually has multiple aspects to it, and may produce both positive and negative reactions at the same time. For example, a target may have a negative view of a new company policy regarding relocation every four years but sees positive benefit in the level of job security he or she would experience. People combine these positive and negative reactions to form an overall judgment of the change.

There are two possible outcomes for the Understanding Stage:

  • Positive perception, which represents a decision to support the change[1]
  • Negative perception, which represents a decision not to support the change

Stage IV: Positive Perception

In Stage IV, people decide whether to support or oppose the change. The forming of an opinion about change is not done in isolation—people typically weigh the costs and benefits of the change against the costs and benefits of other alternatives, including doing nothing. Ideally, the benefits of a change to an individual so clearly outweigh the benefits of any alternative course of action that it requires little thought to decide to move forward. However, this is not typically the case. In many organizational change situations, the benefits of moving forward are only marginally more positive than the benefits of the best alternative course of action. In some changes, the path forward has such significant costs associated with it that the individual reaches an overall positive perception only because all of the alternatives are worse.

For instance, a leader may face a decision to lay off a large number of people from the organization. He is likely to see this as a tremendously difficult and costly move. However, if he perceives that the alternative is the sale of the organization to a competitor who would be even more ruthless in the downsizing efforts, he may ultimately reach a positive perception about moving forward.

Positive Perception is an important stage in the process of building commitment, but at this point the change is still rather theoretical. To reach true commitment, people must begin to try out the new way of operating—they must alter their mindset and behavior.

There are two possible outcomes of the Positive Perception Stage:

  • Experimentation, which is an initial trial of the new way of thinking and behaving
  • Inaction, which is failure to make initial shifts in thoughts and behaviors

Commitment Phase

The Commitment Phase marks passage over the Action Threshold. In this phase, the perceptions that have been created in the Acceptance Phase result in actual commitment. This is a critical step in the building of momentum and critical mass.

There are many situations in which people will say that they view a change as positive. However, they will not actually take the first steps to alter their behavior or mindset. There can be several reasons for this, including:

  • Lack of a setting in which to try the new behavior
  • Absence of needed skills
  • Insufficient time, energy, or adaptation capacity to engage in the new behavior

Commitment occurs when people see a change as more positive than negative and take action accordingly. There are four stages in the Commitment Phase:

  • Experimentation
  • Adoption
  • Institutionalization
  • Internalization

Stage V: Experimentation

In Stage V, individuals take action to test a change. This is the first time people actually try out the change and acquire a sense of how it might affect their work routine. This stage is an important signpost that commitment building has begun, although greater support is possible.

The critical importance of this stage is that no matter how positively people view a change prior to engaging with it, their actual experience with it will reveal a number of small or large surprises. Some of these may be positive, but others may involve unanticipated problems that  have significant negative consequences. If problems become too costly, pessimism regarding the change will increase and may reach the “checking-out” level. This occurs when early, uninformed optimism for a project transforms into informed pessimism, and the individual’s original positive judgment shifts to negative.

Because of the inevitability of surprises, some degree of pessimism is unavoidable during change. Nevertheless, the confidence of those involved in a change increases as a result of resolving such problems. An environment that encourages the open discussion of concerns tends to solve problems, promote ownership, and build commitment to action. As these problems are resolved, a more realistic level of conviction toward the change builds. This conviction advances commitment to the Adoption level.

There are two possible outcomes for the Experimentation Stage:

  • Adoption, in which individuals continue their exploration of the new mindsets and behaviors
  • Rejection, in which individuals cease their exploration of the new mindsets and behaviors

Stage VI: Adoption

Stage IV, Adoption, is reached after individuals have successfully navigated the initial trial period. The dynamics here are similar to that of the Experimentation Stage. Both stages serve as tests in which the individual and the organization assess the cost and benefits of the change. Longer-term trials can reveal logistic, political, and economic problems with the new way of operating that can lead sponsors, agents, and/or targets to question the long-term viability of the new approach and potentially make a decision to terminate the change.

The differences between the Experimentation and Adoption stages are important, even though their dynamics are similar. Experimentation focuses on initial, entry problems, and adoption centers on in-depth, longer-term problems. The former is a preliminary test of the change. The latter tests the ongoing implications of the change. Experimentation asks, “Will this change work?” Adoption asks, “Does this change fit with who I am as a person/who we are as an organization?”

Although the level of time and resources necessary to reach Adoption is great, a change project in this stage is still being evaluated and can possibly be stopped. If the change is successful after this lengthy test period, it is in a position to become the standard new way of operating.

There are two possible outcomes for the Adoption Stage:

  • Institutionalization, in which the new way of operating is established as a standard
  • Termination, in which the change is ended after an extensive trial

Stage VII: Institutionalization

Stage VII reflects the point at which people no longer view the change as tentative. They consider it standard operating procedure.

As part of the institutionalization process, the organizational structure may be altered to accommodate new ways of operating, and rewards and punishments implemented to maintain new mindsets and behaviors. What was once a change requiring substantial sponsor legitimization has become part of the organizational routine that is monitored by managers.

The move from Adoption to Institutionalization is a significant one, and a double-edged sword. The threshold that is crossed here is that of “reversibility.” Once a change is institutionalized, it becomes the new status quo. Ending an institutionalized pattern that is ingrained into the fiber of an organization is extremely difficult.

This stage reflects the highest level of commitment that can be achieved by an organization—the level above it, internalization, can only be achieved by individuals who make a personal choice to go there.

Although institutionalization is sometimes all that is required to achieve the organization’s goals, it has some potential problems. If a change has been institutionalized but not internalized, those affected may be motivated to adhere to new procedures primarily to comply with organizational directives. Their compliance is achieved by using organizational rewards and punishments to motivate them to conform despite their own private beliefs about the change. If their perception of the change is generally negative, but they have chosen to go forward because the costs of not doing so are prohibitively high, they will likely only mimic acceptable behavior. They learn to say and do the “right” things, but their actions will not reflect their true perspective. Because their mindset (priorities and frames of reference) does not align with their behavior, a great deal of managerial pressure will be required to ensure the ongoing presence of the desired behavior.

The success of change does not always depend on the target’s personal investment. Some projects require only that targets “do as they are told.” However, as the pace and complexity of change escalates, producing more turbulence in the workplace, many organizations have modified their views about workers needing to understand or support organizational changes.

Forcing change implementation often results in a halfhearted effort without a full return on investment. Institutionalized change, as powerful as it is, only delivers the target’s behavior, not his or her mind and heart. This doesn’t mean that institutionalization isn’t the way to go sometimes because there are situations where leaders have to engage unpopular change. The point is to be aware of the benefits and limitations of institutionalized change.

Stage VIII: Internalization

Stage VIII represents the highest level of commitment an individual can demonstrate toward an organizational change. It reflects an internal motivation in which individual beliefs and desires are aligned with those of the organization, and there is a high level of consistency between an individual’s mindset and behavior.

While an organization can legislate the institutionalization of a change, internalization requires the active cooperation of each individual. At this last stage, people “own” the change; they demonstrate a high level of personal responsibility for its success. They serve as advocates for the new way of operating, protect it from those who would undermine it, and expend energy to ensure its success. These actions are often well beyond what could be created by any organizational mandate.

Enthusiasm, high-energy investment, and persistence characterize internalized commitment, and it tends to become infectious. Targets who have internalized a change often cannot be distinguished from sponsors and advocates in their devotion to the task and their ability to engage others in the change effort.

The time needed to move through the Experimentation, Adoption, Institutionalization, and Internalization phases will vary according to the individual, the organization, and the nature of the change project. The lines can be relatively clear or somewhat blurry depending on the situation. If a change is mandated, it can become institutionalized very quickly (but, as mentioned earlier, at a high cost of monitoring compliance). In other cases, institutionalization unfolds more gradually.

As people gain experience with the new way of operating, find ways to refine and improve it, and adjust to its long-range impact and requirements, the change gradually becomes a natural part of the organization’s culture or expected pattern of behavior. Internalization can begin very early in a change if the new way of operating is strongly aligned with individual beliefs and assumptions; it can also emerge along the way as individuals begin to see the advantages of the new approach. In some cases, it can fail to surface at all.

Understanding the steps and sequence for building commitment is a powerful advantage for change practitioners when building momentum and critical mass for major organizational change.

Next: Tactics for building commitment (free download)

Go to the beginning of this series.

[1] A positive perception does not necessarily mean that people like the change, but rather that they see it as the best available course of action. I’ll describe this more in the next section.