Make people change what they are used to (even if they don't like what they are used to), and you might get a revolt. I've lived through a few.

In these cases, it's easy write people off as emotional and irrational as you prepare yourself to slog through it.

Here's the good news. There is a lot of research showing just how predictable you and I are in our emotional and behavioral responses to change. If you know it, you can get in front of it.

The psychology of change

Based on research credited to Kubler-Ross about how people deal with loss, business leaders wanted to understand if there were patterns in employee emotions and productivity during change. In other words, they wanted to know why people always seem to fight back against great new changes.

The research of many, including Jerald Jellison, retired Professor of Psychology from The University of Southern California, showed a consistent productivity drop followed by a gradual rise back up. It became known as The J-Curve.

Here are the five predictable phases in brief, what you typically hear or see, and practical tips from the trenches:

1. Launch

Emotional response is often neutral. Productivity might not change. You might even hear excitement that "finally something is going to change around here." Beyond the announcement of change, nothing is real, though. It's kind of business as usual.

Even though it's early and you haven't hit any problems yet, people will need to be prepared because reality will set in soon. Let people know what this is and why it is happening.

Recently, my wife got me a new cell phone. I figured I'd use it. I wasn't too concerned at the time.

2. Plunge

Time passes. Things get real. Changes have happened, and you aren't sure you like them. This might be bigger or different than you thought. It often is.

You are still somewhat close to the beginning of the change, so you might hear a lot of:

"Why can't we go back to what we used to do?"

Productivity and morale are moving south. Energy is often dedicated to trying to turn the ship around.

It's easy to view these responses as resistant to "the new" and "stuck in the old." Instead of pushing hard, I've found that you need to give people time and allow them to express their concerns.

In my cell phone example, I kind of liked it until I couldn't get that dumb password to go away every time a call came in. I entertained the notion of re-activating my old one and giving this one to the kids.

3. Valley of Despair

More time has passed. Lots of change has occurred. You can't see the better place you are supposedly going and are too far in to go back to where you started.

This is the bottom of the morale and productivity curve. You often see disillusionment, depression, or even hostility. You don't know how to operate in the new world, and you don't like it.

Beyond helping people build new skills, creating support systems, allowing the expression of the despair, and giving encouragement helps people get out of there. Being irritated that people are "being negative" (a common response) actually gets people more entrenched in the "VoD."

4. Ascent

More time has passed and has given you the benefit of working through things. Maybe you've even had a few successes.

It's a fragile move up the curve towards gradual acceptance.

The most important thing to know here is that the ascent is usually not linear. You could be ascending one day and back in the VoD the next. You thought you had it, and then you hit a monkey wrench.

With my cell phone, I finally found a way to disable that annoying password and even found a cool video thing I liked. Then a mandatory update messed up all of my settings.

5. Mountain Top

A lot of time has passed and with it a lot of practice in the new world. You often hear things like:

"This actually is way better. Why did we ever do it the old way?"

The key is understanding that no one jumps from the launch to the mountain top. You go down through the valley and up the other side. Often, when you try to get people excited about the mountain top when selling the case for change, you inadvertently set yourself up for a false sense of what that journey is really going to be like.

Knowing the J-Curve can help you set and manage realistic expectations while also getting in front of behaviors and emotions you know will be coming.

Here is some great reading from Jerald Jellison if you are interested in diving deep.

Published on: Mar 2, 2017
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