Psychological and Cultural Aspects of Disruptive Changes

The underlying beliefs representing the corporate culture are learned responses to problems of survival in the external environment and problems of internal integration.[1]Employees react to change in a natural and mostly emotionally driven way. A change of the environment, the working style, the corporate culture or location or any other change is perceived as being a risk for everyone’s personal status quo.

According to Doppler (2008), fundamental business changes need to be lead and not managed. In his book “change management” Doppler names four reasons why a “management” of a change with a high psychological impact will not work:[2]


  1. If the upper management tries to implement a change alone, they put themselves under massive time pressure. If they need too much time, they might passively communicate the impression that they’re not able to handle the situation.
  2. If the different managers do not work together but rather try to picture themselves as heroes, they will raise unnecessary rivalry. This rivalry will consume a lot of energy and time.
  3. It is not a good strategy to prioritize delimitation, quickness and affiliation. A leader or manager should try never to completely fight against something or someone. An intelligent manager should always try to find the golden mean.
  4. If management members present themselves as saviors and superheroes, the subordinate employees have no choice than to feel like having just the “role of a water boy.” [3]


Because of these reasons, leading a fundamental business change is much better than managing it. “Managing it” in this context means, that the leadership team is trying to solve the problem all alone in order to gain respect and recognition. Doppler says that this behavior is also wide spread on a non-management level. Individuals are more likely to offer quick solutions than listening to the problem because they think that delivering solutions is more appreciated and honored. This behavior however is harmful for the organization because solutions to the wrong problems do not solve the real problem. To Doppler, this is a cultural issue.[4] Leading a change means guiding the employees through the eight stages of change due to Kotter described above. Leading also means, helping the employees to master the “four rooms of change” which will be described on the following pages in this chapter. Basically, when a change is lead and not managed, the employees do have the task to solve the business problem that triggered the change and not the leadership team or management team.


A model exists, which illustrates the psychological impact of a fundamental change, how employees react, and how management could guide this change, by defining ‘four rooms of change’. This model is used by different scientists and is said to be one of the models with the best practically usable approach:[5]


In order to adopt to change, people pass through different cognitive and emotional phases. They are in this model called the four rooms of change. This model most likely originated from Claes Janssen (1996)[6] and is also referenced by Weisbord (1984)[7].


The following illustration shows the feelings of the employees during the different stages of the change. The overall goal is to re-reach the contentment room quickly and effectively, by working through the complete cycle in an effective way. This model describes four rooms which emblematize different emotional phases: Contentment, Denial, Confusion and Renewal.



Figure 1 The Four Rooms of Change


Individuals in this model will in the beginning reside in the upper right room. As soon as a change is approaching, they might more and more move into the second room in the downer right, experiencing the feelings and thoughts described there. After that, they will move to the next room in the down left or they might also go back (mentally) into the starting room. At this point, it is a question of leadership and guidance on where the individual mentally will move.


The aim for the leadership team is to guide the employees through the complete process. The individuals should not:

  • Reside in one of the rooms too long.
  • Move from one room to another in the wrong direction.

The following picture illustrates this (next page):

Figure 2 Employee Movement in the Four Rooms of Change


In order to keep the individuals moving from one room to another, the leadership team could use specific actions. For example if the employees reside in the contentment room, they will not want to leave that comfort zone. However, as the leadership team knows that a business change is necessary, they need to do something to get the employees to leave their save room of contentment. For example the team could stage a crisis!

The following illustration shows some appropriate actions for a leadership team to keep the individuals moving from room to room, from stage to stage:



Figure 3 Actions of the Leadership Team to Keep Individuals Moving

The illustrations show that the employees are undergoing massive psychological pressure and strong erratic mood swing when going through the different phases. As mentioned in chapter 3.1.2, changes happen very often within the IT world. Thus in theory, the employees of an IT department keep on moving and moving through this psychologically challenging process all the time. In order to keep these individuals mentally healthy and strong, the magnitude of the different erratic mood swings needs to be lowered. The constant change should become a normal process which should not frighten the employees. If such a normalization of the change process concerning the psychological impact can be leveraged by the leadership team a very valuable cultural change would have taken place.

[1] Cp. Yukl, G. (2002), p.278

[2] Cp. Doppler, K; Lauterburg, C. (2008), p.105

[3] Cp. Doppler, K; Lauterburg, C. (2008), p.106

[4] Cp. Doppler, K; Lauterburg, C. (2008), pp.125ff

[5] Glasl, F.; Kalcher, T.; Piber, H. (2008), pp. 209ff

[6] Janssen, C. (1996), no page

[7] Weisbord, M. (1984), p.16

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *