The Downton Abbey School of Change Readiness

Downton AbbeyThe popular British series Downton Abbey has returned to PBS for its second season. It covers the years from 1916 to 1919, resuming two years after the Earl of Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) announcement that England is at war with Germany.

In the new season’s first episode, the Earl captures the societal shifts that drive the storyline, summing up the drama affecting the Crawley family with “It’s a brave new world we face.”  

The Great War touches all — both the aristocrats who call Downton Abbey home and the serving staff who keep the estate humming.

Sense of urgency
As the series resumes, the characters reveal their attitudes about the changes war imposes. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the characters in light of their individual readiness to change. Although there are many change management models, I’m most familiar with The Change Management Learning Center’s (Prosci’s) approach. It details five key steps in the change process:

  1. Awareness of the need to change
  2. Desire to participate and support the change
  3. Knowledge about how to change
  4. Ability to implement new skills and behaviors
  5. Reinforcement to keep the change in place

While frequently used in a business context, the model can also be applied to individual changes, such as making resolutions stick.

Customize communications
At Downton Abbey, each of the characters finds him/herself on a different part of the change continuum. The series reminds us that individuals may experience the same event quite differently and communication, to be successful, must reflect these differences. The change process may be fast for some but require more time and reinforcement for others.

Lady Sybil
For example, the Earl’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, has embraced change wholeheartedly. Taking the social awareness she showed in series one to a new level, she takes an active role in the war effort, enthusiastically learning new skills from cooking to nursing. She also becomes a change agent, influencing her father to make room at Downton Abbey for a rehabilitation hospital, when the small village hospital grows too overcrowded to meet the needs of the many soldiers recovering from wounds suffered in battle. (Step 4)

The Countess
At the other extreme is the Earl’s mother, the droll Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith.) She represents the end of the Edwardian era and in the season’s first episode resists the changes the world imposes on her family. Fearing the devastation that combat could bring to cherished staff members, she enlists Dr. Richard Clarkson (David Robb) to write medical releases to keep some from having to enlist. Will she grow less appalled at the idea of turning Downton Abbey into a rehab hospital in the next few episodes? (Pre Step 1)

Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the family’s loyal butler, holds tradition dear. As male staffers leave, he takes on more responsibility to maintain household systems. Exhausted and overworked, he collapses while serving a family dinner. That moment and the support of housekeeper Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) make him aware of the need to change. The housemaids will now serve meals and pour wine, traditionally work reserved for men. (Step 1)

As episode one begins, John Bates (Brendan Coyle) shows progress on the change readiness scale. Returning to Downton Abbey after his mother’s funeral, he declares his love for housemaid Anna Smith (Joanne Froggart) and asks her to marry him. He is certain his estranged wife will free him now that he has an inheritance. But Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has other plans. She threatens to reveal a scandalous-for-the-time Downton Abbey secret and Bates, who was showing a readiness to move forward with his life, sacrifices his happiness to keep her quiet. (Was on Step 2, reverted to Step 1)

Your turn
Do you watch Downton Abbey? Where do characters like Robert and Cora Crawley, Lady Mary and Lady Edith fall on the change readiness continuum? Which characters do you find most open to change and most resistant?

With thanks to Evian Tsai for the great photo via Flickr.

You might also enjoy 7 Things Playing an Online Word Game Taught Me About Communications.

About creativeconsiderations

Christine Sullivan is a communications strategist with expertise in communications planning, writing and content development, and executive communications. She can be reached at
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