An acronym you should remember when leading change


Guest Post from Suzi McAlpine of The Leader's Digest, an award-winning leadership blog.

I like acronyms. They’re handy. Where would we be without RSVP, ETA and FYI? And having to remember the colours of the rainbow in correct order is made easier by ROYGBIV. This is required far more often than you’d think when you have a ten year old daughter.

Then, there’s the ‘too weird to believe’ acronyms. Like WISEASS: Weizmann Institute of Science Experimental Astrophysics Spectroscopy System. Yep, it’s a thing.

But here’s an acronym you SHOULD remember when you're leading change. This will be often, BTW, given you’re in a leadership role.

It’s called SARAH, and like my best friend of the same name, it’s helpful, handy to have around and hard to forget.

The acronym SARAH stands for the stages most of us go through as we adapt to change. It might be a restructure, a redundancy, or a change in strategic direction of your company. It might be a torturous IT systems implementation. Or just the fact the boss you love is leaving. Change is inevitable. The SARAH model helps you lead more competently through that change.


What is the SARAH acronym?

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Resistance
  • Acceptance, and
  • Healing/Hope

Some people zip through the SARAH process as fast as you can say, “hey pronto!” Others amongst us take a little more time to adjust to the new norm. We might even get stuck in the A or R stage. AAARRR indeed.

There’s no right or wrong. But understanding your reactions to change or more importantly, your team members' reactions - is ‘mui importante’!

Here are a few big mistakes you might make when you’re leading change and which the SARAH acronym can help you avoid:

  • You think everyone reacts to change the same way as you do.
  • You forget you’ve had more time to come to grips with the thing that’s changing.
  • Believing comments like, “you’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus” or “isn’t it time you accepted this?!!” will help people embrace the change. They won’t.
  • You miss the power of listening. By listening, you help people face their new reality.
  • You think allowing space for people to share their feelings about the change - especially when those feelings are difficult or uncomfortable to witness - is “koombyah”, touchy feely or takes too long. Let’s be honest, it’s more likely because people sharing ‘difficult’ emotions like anger, fear or grief makes you uncomfortable. Merely creating the space for people to share how the change impacts them is often enough to move them more quickly through the SARAH cycle. Ironic huh?

Feeling heard is always important. It’s even more important during a change process.

So what does each letter in the SARAH acronym mean? And what should you do when you recognise your team in one of these stages?


This response is often characterised by strong feeling and emotion - or none at all. They might not understand the change. Fear often paralyses. It might show up as denial that the change is even happening at all! Think head in the sands or deer in the headlights.

What to do? Respond gently, empathise, listen. Provide context or historical information that led to the decision. Support is key here. You might ask, “what support do you need?”. Stay close.


Shock can manifest into anger or anxiety once people realise the implications of the change. They might be highly defensive, belligerent or passive aggressive. You might even see downright 'dig your heels in' rage. Resist the temptation to fight anger with insistence or anger. The person in this stage may not agree with the need for change. It’s like the rejection response, but less rational and is heat in the moment behaviour. They may lash out at you, when what they’re really lashing out at is the thing that’s changing.

What to do? Show empathy, ask questions, and let the person talk. Listen, listen some more and paraphrase to check your understanding of their perspective. Restate your points – but only after you’ve done the steps I’ve listed beforehand. Oh, and did I mention listen? Loads of that.

Rejection (or Resistance)

During the rejection phase, they reject the need for change. They might deflect, identify loads of other issues and support their case with logic and reasoning. They may be apathetic, check out or temporarily give up hope. You might see cynicism, self-pity or a sense of injustice.

What to do? Be patient (easier said than done). Listen without diving into collusion, stick to the issues. Agree action plans over clear time frames and with success indicators. The theme for this stage is 'one step at a time'. Ask, “what is the one small thing you can do today or this week that’s within your power here? What support do you need to get it done?” Focus on small wins and low hanging fruit.


This stage occurs when they’re coming to terms with the change and are ready to accept or live with it. When people begin to embrace or accept the change, the benefits start to become visible to them.

What to do? Encourage them to take small, manageable risks. Give them positive feedback and cautious corrective feedback, where they can accept it. “Well done on xyz! That meant (insert positive impact). What could we do next to build momentum?”


Hallelujah! The person is now asking for help. Signs include a lift in energy and motivation. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll see a shift, a 'lifting' of sorts.

What to do? You can now begin to coach and guide them. This includes setting goals, discussing the current situation, exploring options and agreeing actions. Helping to balance learning and develop new skills. And now more than ever, uphold the vision.

Use the SARAH model the next time you're leading change. Or if you have a boss who’s leading YOU through change and needs to read these tips, drop this article on their desk ASAP. Or "accidentally" email it to them.

Leading change is hard. But it can be easier if you befriend SARAH, just BTW, FYI.


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