ADKAR model

The Evolution of ADKAR Change Management Methodology and Transforming Resistance

ADKAR model

Here is an overview of an incremental organizational change management methodology called ADKAR. 

This article also includes a look at the types of resistance that can emerge and how to transform them using up-to-date research from social cognitive neuroscience and a contemplative approach (the GRACE model)


The ADKAR change model is founded on 2 basic ideas:

  1. It is a person who changes, not organisations.
  2. Successful change occurs when individual change matches the stages of organisational change. 

ADKAR is a good diagnostic and benchmarking tool to identify where and why a change is stuck and also a useful change management model for managing resistance and guiding an effective coaching plan. It's less well suited to revolutionary change where leadership and vision are more critical. 

What is ADKAR?

ADKAR is a 5 element model to help implement change within an organization

The five elements of the Prosci ADKAR model for building and managing change are:

  • Awareness
  • Desire
  • Knowledge
  • Ability
  • Re-enforcement


Awareness (the A of ADKAR) is the communication message that defines the business benefits of completing the change and the risks of not doing so. 

It should be communicated by the project Sponsors. Research indicates that these sponsors should be business, managers or leaders at a senior enough management or business level, that communicates the importance of the change.

These individuals should capture attention, be trusted and engaged throughout the whole change process.

There is a clear distinction made between the business rationale for the change, communicated through business leaders and the personal impact of the change which is held by an individuals team manager.


Desire (the D of ADKAR) is the motivation (or not) for an individual to engage with the change. Ideally, the change should create passion and purpose, the next ideal would be to increase a sense of engagement and at the very least to mitigate or neutralise resistance towards the change. Resistive behaviors towards a change almost always exist at the most human level of, emotions.

Resistive behaviors towards a change almost always exist at the most human of levels - emotions.


Knowledge (the K of ADKAR) is how well the participant has the relevant skills and behaviors needed to enact the change itself


Ability (the second A of ADKAR) ​is the embodied knowledge in action.

Think the difference between having driving lessons (knowledge) and the ability to drive itself (ability)


Reinforcement (the R of ADKAR) is​ the measuring and evaluation that is put into place to ensure the change 'sticks' and individuals don't fall back into older ways of working.

Prosci ADKAR change management model treats change as a sequential process. With each stage needing to be met before the adoption of the next stage.

For example, an individual would need 3 elements to gain maximum benefit of attending a course (for example).  They would need to be aware (A) of the benefits of attending a training, individually wish to engage with the course itself (D) so they could benefit from the course content (​K).

If the preceding Awareness and Desire are not in place you could put on a training course (K) and the individual would then decide not to turn up (why would they bother as it is not in their perceived interest?), or they could turn up (because they are directed to) but only attend in body with no desire to learn.

In the Prosci ADKAR change management model the same linear process occurs for any change that impacts individuals. So if you were making a substantial wholesale organizational change or creation of a new partnership, employees would need to understand the benefits and risks of the change (A), want the change to happen (D), have the relevant skills and behaviours (K) etc​

Leading change and why transformation efforts fail

The Prosci ADKAR change management model works well for traditionally driven organisations with clearly defined structures that are more hierarchical in nature. Particularly when a decision or change is made at a management level (or more senior) and where that change then needs 'cascading' through the rest of the organisation or partnership. I would however say the Prosci model has limits on helping create a more adaptive culture or when a wholescale step change is needed, which needs very clear leadership (sometimes called sponsorship in Prosci terms) which can be lacking in more traditional management driven organisations.

I would however say the Prosci model has limits on helping create a more adaptive culture or when a wholescale step change is needed, which needs very clear leadership (sometimes called sponsorship in Prosci terms) which can be lacking in more traditional management driven organisations.

Rick Maurer's 3 levels of resistance

The successful ability to deliver change means handling the many forms of resistance to change that emerges.  There are many reasons for resistance to change in the workplace and from one point of view, you could say that change management is all about transforming resistance, from foot-dragging to petty sabotage to outright rebellions. 

People can resist change for a whole host of reasons.  Rick Maurer's 3 levels of resistance model organises resistances into 3 types of resistance to change.

  1. Intellectual - 'I don't get it'
  2. Emotional - 'I don't like it'
  3. Social - 'I don't trust you'

Level 1 - Intellectual resistance

Level 1 resistance is related to intellectual resistance.  Many leaders make the mistake of treating all resistance as if it were Level 1 with dire consequences.

Level 1 resistance is triggered by the lack of depth, precision or quality of facts and information that has been shared to articulate the case for change.

It also relates to the ongoing messages and intellectual engagement that occurs during the change cycle.​

  • ​It's at the level of e-mails, newsletters, PowerPoint shows (all Level 1 tools)
  • It's the lack of facts and figures, that don't make sense
  • It's the use of the wrong medium used to share the messages or the use of inappropriate language or terminology 
  • It's incomplete or poor presentations, diagrams, and logical arguments 
  • Done well it allows the support of new ideas and effective decisions by providing true data on which it can act. It helps to facilitate dialogue.
This is at the level of 'I don't get it'. 

How to implement change effectively

  • Don't just give people more information (more facts, more figures etc) thinking that they'll 'just see the light'. That misses the more difficult Level 2 (emotional) and Level 3 (trust) issues related to successful change.
  • 'Communicate to engage' rather than ‘communicate to tell’
  • Don't assume, make sure you check an individuals understanding of
    1. What the change actually is (including scope, timescales, resources and deliverables)
    2. What the benefits of the change are and
    3. What the risks of not adopting the change are
  • Have a clear communication plan that talks their language
  • Remember the 7 C's in articulating messages (clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent, complete and courteous)
  • Check that you are creating an opportunity for a 2 way exchange? This will provide the opportunity to refine the messages and increase a sense of relatedness and fairness - big social drivers as to why change fails. As Chris Brogan says: “Grow bigger ears”.
  • Repeat key messages (at least 5 times). Share the message more than you think you need to, as this will reduce the level of uncertainty, an important stress response that change triggers.
  • Recognise that messages should come from different places. Benchmarking research from PROSCI shows that employees prefer to hear messages from two people in the organization:
    • The sponsor of the change (is the person at the top of the change) communicates the business issues and reasons for change
    • Their immediate supervisors about the personal impact of the change

Level 2 - Emotional resistance

Level 2 is an emotional reaction to the change, both good and bad.

Resistance to change
  • People could be afraid that this change will cause them to lose face, status, control – maybe even their jobs.
  • Level 2 is not wishy-washy. You can’t tell people to “get over it” 
  • People can move into a fight-flight or freeze mode as our biology kicks in
  • Because organizations usually don’t encourage people to respond emotionally, check to make sure that people aren't limiting their questions and comments to Level 1 issues. ("How much will this cost?" or "What's the timeline?”)
  • Personal fear and yearning are not in the vocabulary of most business organizations, response to change is very much a human not a business issue
  • As you get close to these emotionally charged feelings, a tendency is to run or to blame those who resist— don't do this, you need to engage with them at a deep level.
  • Emotional resistance is a natural part of the change cycle, plan for it.
  • Reflect on your own skills to improve but don't take resistance to change personally
  • Recognise that if you allow yourself to stay removed from the human toll, you cannot build support for your ideas.
  • Done well its an emotionally compelling narrative for the change
This is at the level of 'I don't like it'.

How to implement change effectively

  • Use a range of styles to approach individuals issues and bring your full diagnostic skills to reveal the underlying problems. This enables you to integrate feedback, amend plans or refine communication messages.
  • As much as possible use co-design and co-delivery processes in the development process and implementation of change.  This increases sense of autonomy, certainty and ownership of the change.
  • Always provide a route and options for feedback and engagement. This increases fairness, autonomy, relationship building and certainty in the process.

I find the GRACE model helpful here, so you can stay anchored, open and available to understand the difficulties arising in a way that provides a shared way forward.

The GRACE Model

Gather your attention: focus, grounding, balance
Give yourself space to get grounded, breath in and pause. Invite yourself to be present, embodied and available. 

For example, your attention can relax onto your breath or the sensation of your hands resting your legs, or the feeling of the soles of your feet on the floor. 

Recall your intention: the resource of motivation
Engagement with others involves connecting at the fundamental level of being human.

This means listening well and acting with integrity and respect. Successful change ultimately means helping others and seeing clearly where they are. Recall that felt-sense.

Attuning to self/other: affective resonance:
Connect with what is going on in your own body and in your own mind. Then connect with the experience of the other person.

This is a process of non-judgemental awareness first involving yourself then the other person. You are providing a space where a rich mutual exchange can unfold.

Notice the emotional cues, body language and tone of voice of the other person.

How you relate and acknowledge the other person and how the person relates and acknowledges you is the basis of a rich sharing of information and connection.

From this process a deep shared understanding can arise.

Considering: what will serve.
During the unfolding encounter, pay attention to insights: stay open to a fresh view of what is happening but also draw on your own expertise and knowledge.

Engage, enact ethically, end: allow for emergence of the next step
From the connectedness, openess discernment that has been created effective action can emerges.

The action could be an open question, an acknowledgement or a proposal as to how to continue.

You are looking for shared supportive ground, based in mutual integrity. As you have co-created a dynamic situation grounded in trust, ethics and values you can both draw on your expertise, insight and  intuition.

What emerges mutual, respectful, practical and principled actions.

If this isn't possible the open space exists to resolve conflicts in values, goals or actions. The situation becomes workable because it is rooted in a place of stability and discernment.

Ensure you recognise when the encounter is over.  Give youself a small pause , rest your attention on your out-breath for example.  This enables you to cleanly move onto the next interaction or task. 

Level 3 - Social resistance

Here we enter a seldom spoken domain - trust. Lack of attention to this area is a major reason as to why resistance flourishes and changes fail.

Maybe they do get and like the change, but they don’t trust or have confidence in your leadership.

  • In Level 3 resistance, people are not resisting the idea. In fact, they may love the idea you are presenting. They are resisting you (or) those that you represent.
  • Books on change often talk about strategies and plans, but most of this advice fails to recognize the fundamental importance of trust in leading change successfully.
  • You've got to prove that you are worthy of their trust. That occurs when people believe that you have their best interests at heart. That takes time and skills that many leaders don't possess.
This is at the level of 'I don't trust you, or who you represent'

The biology of engagement 

To support transforming resistance it's crucial to understand the missing element of the social brain in many change management approaches.

Although social and non-social thinking feel similar, they involve entirely separate mental processing systems in the brain.

Non-social cognition, such as general intelligence, problem-solving, and related intellectual abilities, activates mostly the brain’s lateral surfaces. Social cognition: thinking about oneself, others, and one’s relations with others, activates mostly the medial regions.

Typically, when either the social or the non-social cognitive mode is active, the other and its associated brain regions are inactive. The two types of skills compete with each other, so a deficit in one area could lead to additional strength and influence in the other.

For a great video on our social brain here is neuroscientist Matt Lieberman explaining very simply its importance.  He's also written great book call Social which I highly recommend.

The social drivers that need to be addressed

The desirability to engage with a needed change is always the most difficult barrier point to overcome. Here is where the social brain research is, I feel the most overlooked.

Studies show that social pain is processed identically to physical pain which consequentially drives a threat response in the brain - closing down our ability to adopt the change itself.

By social here I mean aspects which trigger uncertainty, unfairness, perceived or real disconnections from others or a loss of autonomy.

Elements of trust, clarity of vision, ability to influence relevant options can become resistive or engaging facts.

Change initiatives trigger multiple social threats and this is the underlying neurological reason why change is hard.  

Various social triggers cause a threat oriented response, which causes our reasoning powers to diminish.

Conversely, if these drivers are engaged, it is the cause of more engagement and purpose toward the change initiative.

How to implement change effectively using the SCARF model

The neuroleadership SCARF model identify specific big social drivers or social threats of (S)tatus, (C)ertainty, (A)utonomy, (R)elatedness and (F)airness  

When we recognise that within the brain itself the social drivers trump *EVERYTHING* and understand that we process physical and social pain identically the importance or transforming and engaging these drivers becomes paramount.

Socially driven elements like breaks in trust increase threats and close down the very cognitive resources needed to make effective decisions, innovate, plan and communicate. 

I believe its the lack of these social elements not being addressed being the fundamental reason still only 30% of projects related to change are actually successful (Mckinsley Quarterly 2010). 

“When I wrote Beyond the Wall of Resistance in 1995 about 70 percent of all major changes in organizations failed. According to recent studies the failure rate is still around 70 percent”

Rick Maurer 
Change Advisor

Here is an over of David Rock's SCARF model by its pioneer below.

For example:

  • the change may cause a threat to someone's status​ (Status), either individually, in teams or whole organisations if you are trying to work in partnership with others
  • by necessity it is a change so thereby increasing iuncertainty in the near term (Certainty)
  • if the change itself hasn't been defined by the individual itself (for example its come from above) it can be seen as a loss of autonomy by the employee (Autonomy)
  • maybe the change will decrease the amount of connectivity the employee feels.  They can have the increased experience of us versus them i.e. the management enforcing the change and they as individuals being dictated to (Relatedness)
  • the change itself may not be perceived as fair (Fairness)


The workplace is a social system with people moving around relational tiers of status. Good status causes the ventral striatum within the brain to light up – we feel good.

Equally the change may trigger a status threat individually, across whole teams or complete organisations. This is linked to Level 2 emotional responses and Level 3 Social context within Rick Maurers model.

The ‘Whitehall Study’ suggests status is one of the most important determinants of longevity; with increased status, individuals have more perceived autonomy and hence ability to influence their environment and hence have less stress.

Status triggers can be a difficult element to hold well in change initiatives. Status driven behaviour can lead to more selfishness and hence overall negative effects in the workplace.

Change initiatives predicated on status can cause lots of potential negative side effects if not negotiated well.

Professor Neff - “In our culture self esteem means being special and above average... this comparative mindset is quite damaging psychologically and for social relationships”.

If the change appears (or is) imposed from above or 'show ups' someone (or some team) then resistance is the nature by product because it 'hits' this status button.

Equally if the change is co-created, communicated well and people feel valued, supported and part of the change initiative this creates a great sense of engagement.


The brain craves certainty for efficient future predictions. 

There's always a gap of uncertainty between where we are currently to where the change leads us. The brain interprets this lack of certainty as stressful. As a consequence the brain engages the more energy intensive prefrontal cortex (brain area above the eyes) to respond to the change, focusing attention on an ‘error’ response in the orbital Prefrontal Cortex with activity in the Anterior Cingulate, insula, and amygdala. 

In essence decreasing certainty increases ambiguity and the threat response.

I think this is one of the major reasons why the initial vision and values that the change is based upon has to be positively and emotionally compelling. It's a foundation based on both the head and the heart and helps regulate this stress response.

It provides a type of 'antidote' to the uncertainty introduced by the change effort itself. We know where we are going and we want to get there.

It is also why a good communication plan and clear leadership related to the change is required as this provides increased engagement and a clear picture of where we are at - both of which counteracts feelings of uncertainty.

A mild threat response is useful though - enough adrenalin and dopamine is produced "to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems” (Rock). The craving for ‘neuroleadership certainty’ is driven by the attempt to increase toward and minimise away states – both at the level of emotion.

Another approach is to include Mindfulness programmes at work as this provides a framework for dissolving and working with these anxieties. 


We all like to have control of our own destiny. If the change hasn't included the individuals it affects in its development, it is basically experienced as a loss of autonomy by those individuals.

Autonomy is the perception of control and provides greater predictability about the future. For example, Seligman identified that people experience more depression when their lives are driven more by external circumstances.

We all have moments when we experience our lives being out of our control. It's uncomfortable, sometimes downright painful and it decreases cognitive abilities

Decreasing autonomy (micro-management or imposing change) increases a lack of autonomy and the stress response – we've reduced the ability to influence circumstances which affect us.

Aversive events are also more stressful if they are preceded by uncertainty.

This process is counteracted by engaging those individuals who will be affected by the change - help them shape the process.


Relatedness is probably more clearly defined as the connectedness we feel with others.

Will this change decrease the amount of connectivity the employee feels?

Will it cause increased experiences of 'us versus them' - the management enforcing the change and 'they as individuals' being dictated to?

Relatedness is also ultimately about feelings of (or lack) of trust. With social and physical pain appearing synonymous in the brain - activating the dACC (distress associated with pain) and the anterior insula (disgust).

Regulating emotions (which increases activity VLPFC) shows a corresponding decrease in the dACC and insula activity and is experienced as less social pain - this is achieved through labelling emotions through practises such as mindfulness as we experience them or increasing the culture of trust around the change initiative.


Fairness for ourselves (a trusting situation) or for others (genuine justice) is the great equaliser in the SCARF model having a big impact on the other four.

We are social beings so its of no surprise that we have automatic preference for fairness.

I'm sure we've all been in a meeting where something unfair has happened, the conflict hasn't be resolved and everyone sits and simmers - sometimes for months on end

Conversely the ventral striatum is activated (pleasant feelings) when we are treated fairly or perceived well by others. Activation has the same importance as meeting primary needs (food, water or faces of loved ones).

Latest research indicates that social reward is also more important than monetary reward in terms of inducing this positive affect.

Correlational research also shows more trustful people are happier. Increased oxytocin production also occurs when we receive or reciprocate trust.

Simply put, is the change itself fair and is it being implemented fairly? 

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