Feb
04

Stages of Change

by  Dr. Ross Wirth  |  Change Management

How can you approach organizational change without first knowing where people are in their change readiness? The change model presented here is the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) coupled with key components of Lewin’s Change Theory.  This approach to organizational change focuses attention on the individual with the assumption that organizational change is the collective change of many individuals along the same path. This model of change was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente through the comparative analysis of 18 major psychotherapy and behavioral change theories, hence, the name transtheoretical.[i]  From this analysis came the identification of ten change processes that were employed with different emphasis by each major theory and applied with different weighting of experiential and environmental interventions.  They also identified five stages through which people progress in the change process.  As will be seen, there is a close relationship between these stages and those identified by Lewin’s theory of how change occurs in individuals.

Stages of Change

These are simple definitions with some information on how the stage might be identified through the behavior exhibited while in that stage of change.

  • Precontemplation – “You are in a state of benign ignorance where you think what you don’t know won’t hurt you.”[ii]  The situation is totally outside the individual’s frame of awareness or outside their perceived need.  Therefore, there is no problem because there is no awareness of the situation as it might pertain to them.  Obviously, there is no intention to change at this stage and defenses may be raised if pushed to change.
  • Contemplation – Some level of awareness of the problem has been attained and the individual is starting to search for more information.  While the search may not be very active or focused, there is some willingness to learn more.  There is some knowledge of the benefits, but a large degree of fear of the unknown and the amount of work that may be needed.  These feelings lead to procrastination.  If forced to change, defenses remain in place leading to compliance that is not lasting.  The individual may welcome assistance in clarifying cost/benefit trade-offs and suggestions on how to change.
  • Preparation – A decision has been made for future action, but the individual is not yet prepared to actually take the action now.  Additional thought is needed on the individual steps that need to be taken prior to the new behavior being attempted.  Seeing peers in the earlier precontemplation and contemplation stages (80% of peers in many research samples) can cause discouragement and questioning of their decision to take action.  Culture plays a further function in reinforcing the role implicit assumptions in perpetuating the status quo.
  • Action – “Just do it.”  The new behavior is tried and may be continued for a while.  However, old habits and tendencies toward the old behavior are still in place and a relapse to the old behavior is quite likely.  A key part of the TTM model of change is recognition that change does not happen all at once, but requires recurring attempts.  Each time a relapse to old behavior occurs there is another learning occasion for identifying the environmental cues to old behavioral patterns.  In these cases additional preparation is needed.
  • Maintenance – What had been the old behavioral habit has been replaced by the new behavior.  Planning and thinking about the new behavior is no longer necessary as the behavior becomes more automatic.  The benefits of the change are being realized and confidence is building on the ability to continue with the change in behavior.  However, in times of stress or unusual environmental conditions a reversion to the old behavior is still likely.  This is because only the normal or routine environmental cues that triggered the old behavior have been altered or the past reaction replaced with new behavior.  However, not all triggering cues that may be possible will have been altered, creating the possibility for a shift to an earlier stage in an abnormal situation not yet addressed in the change process to the new behavior.  Again, reversion to old habits is not a failure of the change process, but the identification of another behavioral cue that needs to be addressed.  The goal of maintenance is not necessarily action but relapse prevention. 

Where should the change process be started? “Many people might assume that the way to bring about change is to advocate their position vigorously while showing others why or how their assumptions are flawed.  This example of linear thinking encourages change agents to respond to resistance with greater and greater force.”[iii] The answer then is to start at whatever stage the individual is at and not to expect them to be as ready to change as you are to have them change.  A problem is that too often change programs start with the focus on the action step, expecting the change to occur with a forceful call to action.  When that fails, there is an attempt to take a step back and help the individual get prepared for the action step of making the change.  But even here, there is the possibility that the individual may be at either of the two earlier stages of change and any effort will be wasted because the intervention will not match the needs of the individual at their point in the change process.


[i] Madsen, S. R. (2003).  An evaluation of the Transtheoretical Model of individual change and its implications for human resource development.  Presented at the Academy of Human Resource Development Research Conference of the Americas.  Retrieved from http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1037&context=susan_madsen
[ii] Booth-Butterfield, S. (1996).  Stages of Change.  Retrieved from http://www.healthyinfluence.com/wordpress/steves-primer-of-practical-persuasion-3-0/intro/stages-of-change/   (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/61SI5BtDm on September 4, 2011)
[iii] Ramsey, P. L. (2001).  Learning to be complete: the challenge of cultural dynamics.  Reflections, 3(1), 49-56, 55. Photo source: wikipedia.org

About The Author

Articles By ross-wirth
Full Bio Coming Soon

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  05 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Ross, Thanks for the interesting post and the excellent reminder that there are many (3) stages before the action step. Too often, I think we all want to start at stage 3 and engage others in preparation, or stage 4, “Now let’s get to work!” But we need to give our team members time to “catch up.” Thanks again for the great post. Mike…

Dr. Ross Wirth  |  08 Feb 2014  |  Reply

Change leaders often forget how much thinking they have done about the change initiative and then expect others to immediately see everything the same way.

Join The Conversation