Organizational Change

Four Inevitable Reactions to Change

Change management Graphics courtesy of Maryville UniversityOpens in new window

In spite of attempts to minimize the resistance to change in an organization, some reactions to change are inevitable. Negative reactions may be manifested in overt behavior, or change may be resisted more passively. People show four basic identifiable reactions to change:

  1. disengagement
  2. disidentification
  3. disenchantment
  4. disorientation.

Leaders can use interventions to deal with these reactions.


Disengagement is psychological withdrawal from change.

An employee appears to lose initiative and interest in the job. Employees who disengage may fear the change but take on the approach of doing nothing and simply hoping for the best.

Disengaged employees are physically present but mentally absent. They lack drive and commitment, and they simply comply without real psychological investment in their work. Disengagement can be recognized by behaviors such as being hard to find or doing only the basics to get the job done. Typical disengagement statements include, “No problem” or “This won’t affect me.”

The basic leadership strategy for dealing with disengaged individuals is to confront them with their reaction and draw them out, identifying concerns that must be addressed.

Disengaged employees may not be aware of the change in their behavior, and may need to be assured of the good intentions of the management. Helping them air their feelings can lead to productive discussions.

Disengaged people seldom become cheerleaders for the change, but they can be brought closer to accepting and working with a change through open communication with an empathetic leader who is willing to listen.


Another reaction to change is disidentification. Individuals reacting in this way feel that their identity has been threatened by the change, and they feel very vulnerable. Many times they cling to a past procedure because they had a sense of mastery over it, and it gave them a sense of security. “My job is completely changed” and “I used to . . .” are verbal indications of disidentification.

Disidentified employees often display sadness and worry. They may appear to be sulking and dwelling on the past by reminiscing about the old ways of doing things.

Disidentified employees often feel like victims in the change process because they are so vulnerable. Leaders can help them through the transition by encouraging them to explore their feelings and helping them transfer their positive feelings into the new situation.

One way to do this is to help them identify what it is they liked in the old situation, as well as to show them how it is possible to have the same positive experience in the new situation.

Disidentified employees need to see that work itself and emotion are separable—that is, that they can’t let go of old ways and experience positive reactions to new ways of performing their jobs.


Disenchantment is also a common reaction to change. It is usually expressed as negativity or anger. Disenchanted employees realize that the past is gone, and they are mad about it. They may try to enlist the support of other employees by forming coalitions.

Destructive behaviors like sabotage and backstabbing may result. Typical verbal signs of disenchantment are “This will never work” and “I’m getting out of this company as soon as I can.”

The angerOpens in new window of a disenchanted performer may be directly expressed in organizational cultures where it is permissible to do so. This behavior tends to get the issues out in the open.

More often, however, cultures view the expression of emotionOpens in new window at work as improper and unbusinesslike. In these cultures, the anger is suppressed and emerges in more passive-aggressive ways, such as badmouthing and starting rumors. One of the particular dangers of disenchantment is that it is quite contagious in the workplace.

It is often difficult to reason with disenchanted employees. Thus the first step in managing this reaction is to bring these employees from their highly negative, emotionally charged state to a more neutral state.

To neutralize the reaction does not mean to dismiss it; rather, it means to allow the individuals to let off the necessary steam so that they can come to terms with their anger.

The second part of the strategy for dealing with disenchanted employees is to acknowledge that their anger is normal and that as their leader you don’t hold it against them.

Sometimes disenchantment is a mask for one of the other three reactions, and it must be worked through to get to the core of the employee’s reaction. Employees may become cynical about change. They may lose faith in the leaders of change.


A final reaction to change is disorientation. Disoriented employees are lost and confused, and often are unsure of their feelings. They waste energy trying to figure out what to do instead of how to do things.

Disoriented individuals ask a lot of questions and become very detail oriented. They may appear to need a good deal of guidance, and may leave their work undone until all of their questions have been answered.

Analysis paralysisOpens in new window is characteristic of disoriented employees. They feel that they have lost touch with the priorities of the company, and they may want to analyze the change to death before acting on it. Disoriented employees may ask questions like “Now what do I do?” or “What do I do first?”

Disorientation is a common reaction among people who are used to clear goals and unambiguous directions. When change is introduced, it creates uncertainty and a lack of clarity. The leader’s strategy for dealing with this reaction is to explain the change in a way that minimizes the ambiguity that is present.

The information about the change needs to be put into a framework or an overall vision so that the disoriented individual can see where he or she fits into the grand scheme of things. Once the disoriented employee sees the broader context of the change, the leader can plan a series of steps to help this employee adjust. The employee needs a sense of priorities.

Leaders need to be able to diagnose these four reactions to change. No single universal strategy can help all employees adjust because each reaction brings with it significant and different concerns. By recognizing each reaction and applying the appropriate strategy, it is possible to help even strong resisters work through a transition successfully.

  1. By T. R. Ramanathan, The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing ..., (p.20-22) Nature and Dimensions of Change