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Human Dimensions of Change


Understanding the different ways people react to different situations can help to improve communication between staff and ensure the success of improvement projects.

Many change projects fail, and the most commonly cited reason is neglect of the human dimensions of change.

What are the human dimensions of change?

When we talk about human dimensions of change, we are referring to the reactions of different people to different situations, particularly when they are confronted by the organisational change that quality improvement can bring.

When human dimensions of change are neglected , improvement efforts can fail. This neglect often centres around a lack of insight into why people are unhappy with organisational change, a poor appreciation of the process of change, and a limited knowledge of the tools and techniques that are available to help.

Why are the human dimensions important?

Having an understanding of how different people react in different situations can help to improve communication between all members of a team and aid the delivery of change projects.

There are many different approaches to improvement. The ‘anatomical approach’ is one way of thinking, which could be described as the hard project management approach to change. Another approach, ‘the physiological approach’, focuses much more on the softer, people side of change.

What we have realised is that for a successful improvement initiative, the improvement leader needs to consider both approaches.

When trying to make improvements in healthcare, gaining the commitment of the people who are likely to be affected by the change is paramount. If the people issues are not identified and managed effectively, the following problems may arise:

  • strong emotions, such as fear, anger, hopelessness and frustration, which can derail your improvement initiative
  • people become defensive – they might deny there is problem, over emphasise the benefits of the present working practice or blame others within the organisation
  • constant complaining, questioning and scepticism
  • an increase in absenteeism, sickness and people leaving the organisation combined with a fall in morale and job satisfaction
  • people don’t match ‘words with deeds’, that is, they do not do what they say they are going to do
  • conflict seems to spiral out of control.

The NHS Improvement guide, although published some time ago, remains a useful guide. It may help you understand these frequent reactions to change and guide you through some models and frameworks to help you respond more successfully to the challenges of managing the human dimensions of change.

What you as an improvement leader need to consider is that people have different needs and different styles of working especially in a change situation. It is often the lack of understanding of their needs and a lack of recognition of the value of their different perspectives that causes people to be labelled ‘resistant to change’.


Further information

Learning modules

< Step 2: Develop a shared purpose

< The Improvement Journey