"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself" - Leo Tolstoy
Let me start by caveating that I do not hold a degree in organization change management or tout myself as an expert in change management. My perspective on change management is based on 35 years of observing and living with team members and organizations in time of change.
My change leadership skills have developed through trial and error, reading, and learning. I can’t explain the psychology or science behind the human reaction to change, I can only tell you how it has felt. I guess you can say that I come out of the school of empirical learning.
With that out of the way, I will give you my perspective of why change is hard.
The ability of an organization to change starts with the people. Organizations don’t change, people do. You cannot make people change, you can lead people through change. Organizational change depends on the culture and mindset of the individuals that make up the organization. If we don’t start with the understanding the impact of change to the individual we can’t effect the change sought for the organization. I guess I made that point clear – it is all about the people.
Change is hard because we don’t know for sure what will happen. We don’t know how it will impact us. We don’t know if we will like the outcome or if we able to adapt. We feel out of control. Change means stepping into out of our comfort zone into the unknown. Even if we don’t like our current state the unknown state is frightening.
If you can buy in to the premise that change starts with people, let us look at how it the emotion behind change by looking at the Change Curve again.
The Change Curve is based on a model originally developed in the 1960’s by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process. The curve and its associated emotions can be used to forecast how performance may be affected by the announcement of a significant change.
I say “may be’ as everyone deals with change differently. We are most effective as leaders of change when we are aware if not sensitive to organization change culture and the people we server. Let’s look at the curve again.
The five major stages of grief Kubler-Ross wrote about are:
When Kubler-Ross wrote about these stages she was very careful to explain that these are normal reactions we have to tragic news. In fact she called them defense mechanisms or coping mechanisms. And this is exactly what they are when we apply the model to coping with change.
No one moves through the stages one at a time or in a step by step manner. There is no right or wrong way, or a race to rush through it. Sometime we will feel like we are moving forward only to hit a disappointment or reality that pushes us back again, Kubler-Ross said the stages can last for different periods of time and will replace each other or exist at times side by side.
It would be wonderful to think that through planning and execution we can reach a place of Acceptance in a prescribed manner. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way. Some people get stuck in one of the stages and find that they need extra help to move on.
Let's examine how people react in each of the five stages.
Shock or Denial
"This isn’t happening to me, I am a top performer!” “No way! What are they thinking?” “There must be a mistake!” “I can't believe it",
Denial is usually a temporary state that gives us time to absorb the news and impact of the change. It is the initial reaction to the impact of the change. Our mind refuses to believe that the change is happening and that it effect us. Our natural reaction is to deny that the change is happening. Maybe if we pretend that it is not happening it will go away – like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.
"Why me? It's not fair!" "NO!I can't accept this!"
As the numbness wears off and the shock abates we start to accept that the change is reald and our denial most often turns to anger. When we are angry we look to blame someone or something for doing this to us.
Anger manifests itself in many ways. Some people direct their anger at their boss, their peers, themselves or even God. If the economy is bad, they may blame it on the economy. They will blame top management for making poor decisions. They may blame the government for political decisions leading to the current state. Unfortunately the brunt of the anger is often directed towards family and close friends in the form of finding fault at the most minor of things. Overall, the anger phase is ugly.
“No matter what I try, it fails.” Why bother, I am not in control?” What’s the point, nothing works out for me anyway?”
When we realize that bargaining is not going to work the reality of the change sets in. At this point we become aware of the losses associated with the change, and what we have to leave behind. This has the potential to move people towards a sad state, feeling down and depressed with low energy.
The depression stage is often noticeable in other ways in the workplace. People dealing with change at work may reach a point of feeling so demotivated that they just shut down. I experienced employees at a non-profit stop giving their best as they felt their jobs were at risk and that their employer did not care. One indication of depressive state is an increase in absenteeism as people use sick leave, arrive late, leave early and take 'mental health' days.
"I need to get my son out of college, can I take a lesser role to stretch out the impact a couple of years?” “Can I move to another division, I will do anything!?
We start bargaining in order to put off the change or find a way out of the situation. Most of these bargains are secret deals with God, others, or life, where we say "If I promise to do this, then you make the change not happen to me". In a work situation someone might work harder. As we move through realizing that the change is here to stay we reach out to friends and collegues to search of answers. Having a place to discuss your fears has proved to be critical to the moving to the acceptance phase.
"Maybe this is not so bad after all.” I’ve been wanting to make a change anyway.” “Now is the time to try my hand at building my own business.” "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."
As people realize that denial, anger, and bargaining is not going to make it all go away they move into acceptance. Acceptance is not always a happy state. It is most often a resigned attitude towards the change and the realization that one most get on with life.
This can be a creative space as it forces people to explore and look for new possibilities. New opportunities are explored. People learn a lot about themselves, their friends and their loved ones. Relationships are built.
In many cases, the acceptance builds belief that something positive will come out of the change. It can be as simple as a renewed confidence in one self to full blown life changes. Even in the most difficult circumstances there is an opportunity for growth and learning. And there will be an end to the change.
Kubler-Ross reminds us that we cycle between these stages, many times multiple times. One day you will feel on top of your game, and the next day something will set you back into depression or anger. This is very normal, that is why it is called a cycle. The danger is when an individual cannot move.
When you use this model in your change management plan you will find that most people will recognize the stage they are in or have been. It's also a huge relief to know that these reactions and feelings are normal, and are not signs of weakness or that they are falling apart.
The Kubler-Ross model is also very useful to identify and understand how other people are dealing with change. People immediately get a better sense of their own reactions and why colleagues are behaving in a particular way.
Not everyone agrees that this model is useful. It main criticism is that the five stages do not adequately describe the range of emotions that people experience. It is said to make too many assumptions when applying it and that not everyone experiences the same reactions and emotions. The model is also criticized for making assumptions about broad applicability. To be fair though, the preface to "On Death and Dying" recognizes this and notes that these are generalized reactions. It is quite acceptable for people to name each stage a different name according to their own reaction. The point is that there is a cycle for dealing with change no matter what it looks like to you.
Personally, I find this model simple enough that it makes it useful to use and easy to understand. More important is that it is easy to see yourself and others around you.
Change happens to all of us. How we react is within our control. In my research I came across a quote by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
"I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word and thought throughout our lifetime." - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
I totally agree that at the end of the day each individual is responsible for their choices and how they deal with change. At the same time, in the case of organizational impacting changes the leader has a strong responsibility and plays a key role in enabling migration from denial to acceptance.
We will discuss the role of the leader in managing change next time!
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