One of the most challenging yet satisfying roles we play at Center for Executive Excellence is helping teams through culture transformations. These are heavy lift, long-term projects that require us to embed ourselves with our clients to execute the transformation roadmap.

The mechanics of the process are tailored from client to client, depending on things like size, business case, and readiness for change. The emotional cycle, however, is a consistent 5-stage process.

Stage 1 is uninformed optimism.

Stage 2 is informed pessimism.

Stage 3 is the “Oh S*&t! What have we gotten ourselves into?” phase, also known as the “Valley of Despair.”

Stage 4 is informed optimism.

Stage 5 is success and fulfillment.

Change of every type – both good and bad – can be stressful. Change takes us out of autopilot and forces us to lay down new neural pathways. Change makes us slow down and re-think what we’re thinking about.

I overheard another metaphor for change last week attributed to a leader at Chuao Chocolatier that helped explain cultural resistance to change. If you think of yourself as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, you can imagine that your shape impacts the shape of those in your immediate surroundings. In turn, their shapes impact the shapes of those surrounding them, and so on throughout the entire organization.

If you try to change, you will meet resistance from those around you, because it will force them to change their shape. But, if enough of your team succeeds in changing together, it can be the catalyst for organizational change.

If you’re stuck in Stages 1 – 3 of your change project, try identifying a team that shows the highest proclivity to make the change you want to see in the rest of the organization. They will be most likely to find ways around resistance and influence those in their immediate surroundings to climb out of the Valley of Despair.

Question: Are you in the middle of a culture transformation? What stage do you find yourself in?