Recently I observed a top management team introduce a proposed new compensation plan to their board of advisers, a select group of employees to whom this new plan would apply. Despite the carefully crafted policy, the advisers did not seem to embrace the new policy wholeheartedly. They had questions, concerns and implementation suggestions. Was the top team annoyed by the reactions? Did they have mixed emotions about their hard work being second guessed? Not sure, but I do know this: I witnessed a change gap in real time.

Mind the Change Gap

Change is a concept that we in organizations live through every day, especially these past months of the pandemic. Savvy organizational members know what change looks like at its most basic: “Unfreeze, change and refreeze,” or the eight steps of change and why transformational efforts fail. However, my research has suggested there is another side of change that is given less attention — how managers and organizational members interpret the changes as they unfold. Knowing the stages individuals go through in order to make sense of change is essential to helping folks adjust, adapt and prosper during change ... and to avoiding the change gap.

There are two things managers and executives should know.

Everyone Has a Different Take

First, interpretations to change do unfold in a predictable pattern, each of which requires attention to different construals.

Initially there are the rumors and suspicions that something might change. Will we get a new CEO, is there a new strategic direction or major product shift at the company, which new HQ location will be selected?

Then, once the change is confirmed, more questions arise. My work suggests that, consistently, there are three questions on people’s minds through its stages:

  • When a change starts, individuals ask: “What does this change mean to be me personally?” 
  • As the change is underway, individuals ask: “How will this change impact my job or work?”
  • And as the change winds down, individuals ask: “Was the change worth it?” 

When a change starts, most individuals want to understand the impact on them personally. Will a new reorganization mean easier advancement in my career? Will this pandemic mean I lose my job?

As the change takes hold, individuals want to understand the impact on their work and how they do their jobs.  Will I have more resources or fewer? Will my work become easier or harder?

And once the change is well underway, each of us begins to ask the question of “Was the change worth it?”

As we started the summer and the outlook was brighter for the ending of the pandemic, we were all beginning to ask and answer that final question.

The fascinating aspect of change as interpretation is that it is never finished.


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Everyone Is Not at the Same Stage

New circumstances can send us backward in terms of the questions that dominate our thoughts. Any new component will start the question-asking all over again, as we are seeing with the surge of the Delta variant. Many people are back to wondering what it means to them and how it affects their work. All this just at a time when we are asking ourselves whether all the measures taken to stave off the virus over the past months were worth it.

The other fascinating aspect of change interpretations is that we are not all at the same stage.

Those at the top of organizations who are living and breathing a change — long before some of us — learn of the change and are ahead in their interpretation cycle. Those of us hearing the change for the first time are asking different questions and needing different answers: the change gap at work.

For the advisory group described at the beginning of this article, they were all trying to figure out what it meant personally to them. The top team was already into how it would affect their work and why the change was worth it.

What Does It All Mean?

So, what conclusions can we glean from all the uncertainty?

  • Interpretations to change have a pattern that can be anticipated and managed.
  • People ask three questions — in a certain order — and want answers. Without answers provided, they will make up their own.
  • Interpretations change as the change moves forward or new events transpire.
  • Where you are in your interpretation cycle may not be where others are. Beware the change gap!


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About the Expert

Lynn A. Isabella

Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration

Isabella is an expert in leadership and how people think about change. She is an authority on leading and managing in a global environment and in competency in global leadership. As a teacher, consultant and executive coach, she teaches individuals and companies to develop talent and organizational effectiveness. Her research focuses on questions of developing personal leadership expertise, leading change as a middle manager and on the events that shape individual careers and propel organizational change.

Isabella is co-author of the books Alliance CompetenceLeader and Teams: The Winning Partnership and The Portable MBA, Fifth Edition.

B.S., Tufts University ; Ed.M., Harvard University; MBA, DBA, Boston University