The ADKAR Model and Employee Behaviors: Learning what to look for during change

The Prosci ADKAR Model is a framework for managing and understanding individual change. The model consists of five building blocks that must be achieved for change to be successful: Awareness of the need for change, Desire to participate and engage in the change, Knowledge of the skills and competencies needed to successfully change, the Ability to perform the necessary skills and the Reinforcement to sustain the change. 

Each element of ADKAR presented in this tutorial will be in the form of an example ADKAR profile. This profile shows the level of achievement of each ADKAR element on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. Typically, scores less than 3 suggest that this element needs additional work. The "barrier point to change" is defined as the first ADKAR element to score 3 or less on this scale. For example, if you were to rate an employee with the following scores as shown in Profile 1 below, then Awareness would be defined as the barrier point to change.

The term "barrier point," as used here, means that you first must address this ADKAR element before moving forward in the model. For example, you would not want to send an employee to a training course to address Knowledge when the employee has no Awareness of the need for change, or has no Desire to engage in that change.

Profile 1: Barrier point at Awareness

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In our Best Practices in Change Management reports, research participants consistently identify lack of awareness as the primary reason why employees and managers are resistant to a change. Without awareness of the need for change, individuals lack crucial pieces of information that block progress with change.

When Awareness or Desire is the barrier point, you will see little or no evidence that the change is taking place. This is the most obvious, yet important, observation: change is not happening with this person.

If the barrier point is Awareness of the need for change, you may see the person simply ignoring the change completely. He or she may pretend that no change is going on, and simply continue with business as usual. If confronted, the person may question why the change is needed, or he or she may argue or debate the reasons for change. It is not uncommon for an employee to defend the current state, especially if they helped create the process or tools currently being used.

Building Awareness is the first step in enabling a successful change. Awareness sets the foundation for helping individuals make personal choices about the change at hand. This first step requires effective communications from the sponsor of the change, as well as careful coaching by the employee's immediate supervisor. Employees need to know the nature of the change, why the change is happening, and how the change aligns with the direction of the organization. They need to hear these messages from people they trust. Some employees may need time to digest this information, and time to internalize the business reasons for the change. Some employees may need to hear the message multiple times from different people. 

Profile 2: Barrier point at Desire

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As with lack of Awareness, lack of Desire is first identified by noticing that the change is not taking place with an employee. When a person lacks Desire to change, you will observe a partial or complete disengagement from work. If the change has a large impact on this person's day-to-day activities, you can expect him or her to become increasingly distracted, absent or in some cases, begin to seek other work opportunities (this is where turnover of employees begins). Some employees may openly resist the change, while others may find passive forms of resistance such as garnering support for his or her position from other employees, or by spreading misinformation or rumors about the change. In the worst case, an employee may attempt to sabotage the change by deliberately taking actions that disrupt or interfere with the change process. If confronted, employees at this stage of ADKAR Model may show fear or uncertainly around the desired future state, or may become angry at being "forced" to change. It is not uncommon for an employee's overall morale to be low and for his or her outlook to be poor.

Desire is often the most difficult element to facilitate with another person. Any manager or sponsor attempting to help another person attain this element will be challenged, as the factors causing a lack of desire are not always within the control of that manager. For example, the lack of Desire may be related to a personal situation outside of work, or to a person's financial status. Therefore, the first step to building Desire is not to act, but to listen. An effective change leader will first seek to understand the root cause for an employee's lack of Desire, and they will explore all the facets of the change that may be impacting this individual. Since Desire to participant and engage in a change is ultimately a personal choice, the manager must be willing to address the "what's in it for me" or WIIFM from the perspective of the employee. Additional steps for building desire and for addressing the associated resistance associated with Desire can be found in Prosci's Change Management Toolkit. 

Profile 3: Barrier point at Knowledge

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Knowledge is the third element in the ADKAR Model, it is understanding how to change (the skills and training on the new tools or processes, and the understanding of the new roles or responsibilities required to change). Recall that the first observations we made around lack of Awareness or Desire were that the change was not happening with the employee. With a lack of Knowledge or Ability, the opposite is true. The first observation is that an employee is trying to change. When an employee has a lack of Knowledge, you will observe honest attempts at making the change happen that often do not work out.

Employees will often say that they do not know what to do, or that they lack the necessary skills. You can expect frequent questions and an increased demand on the time of managers and co-workers. Typically employees who lack Knowledge of how to change, but who try anyway, are often troubled by mistakes and rework, and therefore become frustrated and discouraged. They may even develop a lack of confidence and an increasing fear of making more mistakes

If the barrier point at Knowledge is not resolved, the cost of change increases, additional resources are used, and employees may become so frustrated that they give up. Ways to address the barrier point of Knowledge includes training on the change process itself (so that employees can recognize what is happening and can take control of their own situation), training on the new tools and process, and, direct coaching from the employees' immediate supervisors or managers.

Profile 4: Barrier point at Ability

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Does attaining the Knowledge regarding a change automatically include having the Ability to change? This is a common misconception among change practitioners. The element "Ability" is when "walking the walk" becomes a reality. Whether from a physical disability, a mental block, a function of time, or a lack of resources, it is possible that an individual may have the Awareness of, Desire and Knowledge to change, but may not be able to perform the change. An example is an individual who takes golf or swimming lessons, but may not necessarily be a proficient golfer or swimmer. Until the majority of employees successfully attain the ability element, the change will not begin yielding the desired outcomes.

Like with Knowledge, the first observation you can make is that the employee is trying to change. When an employee lacks Ability, you can expect them to take longer to perform the necessary tasks and productivity will be low. Employees at this stage continue to seek constant help from their manager or co-workers. Some employees may be disappointed in their own performance, and they can become upset over the mistakes they are making. If left unattended, these same employees may attempt to find work-arounds that are easier for them, even if these work-arounds do not align with the change. It is not uncommon for an employee who started with a strong Awareness, Desire and Knowledge level, but lacks Ability, to revert back to a lack of Desire if they come to believe that they will not be successful in the new environment.

To address a lack of Ability, managers must ensure that their employees receive the necessary amount of coaching to master the new skills and processes. Equally important, employees must have the time to practice until they become proficient at the change. Subject matter experts and mentors are great tools to assist employees during this state. Some organizations even implement a "help desk" so that employees have someone to talk to immediately when they need assistance.

Profile 5: Barrier point at Reinforcement

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Even though the change is demonstrated with the attainment of Ability, Reinforcement is the final essential element in the ADKAR Model for individual change. When employees lack recognition, reward and reinforcement for the change, you can expect a decline in their enthusiasm and energy level around the change, and in some cases employees will simply revert back to old ways of doing work. When a person feels unrecognized, he or she may believe that no one cares or is paying attention. They may feel uncompensated for all of the hard work they have done to achieve the change. Any employee who feels unappreciated is unlikely to perform at their best.

As change is a process that occurs over time, we may need to spend as much time reinforcing the change as we did building Awareness of the need for change. Tactics for reinforcing the change include engaging the primary sponsor and the employees' direct supervisors in providing recognition and reinforcement to employees, and celebrating successes both publicly and privately. Compensation and performance measurement systems need to be aligned with the change.

Integrated ADKAR elements

While a barrier point at each ADKAR element can have negative consequences, the elements also relate to one another. The five building blocks are sequential such that a barrier point at Awareness can affect Desire, or a gaining of Knowledge is a key component in the attainment of Ability. A "sagging," low level of any one particular element can pull down other elements, while an increase in any element through targeted change management efforts can positively contribute to helping individuals attain other elements of the ADKAR Model.

Learn more about using the ADKAR Model to facilitate individual change.

ADKAR Model Bundle

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.