Let me start with the caveat that I do not hold a degree in organizational change management or tout that I am an expert in change management. My perspectives on change management are based on 40 years of observing and living with team members and organizations in times 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 practical learning.
With that out of the way, I am going to give you my perspective of why change is hard.
The ability of an organization to change starts with 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 an understanding of the impact of change on the individual, we can’t affect the change being sought for the organization. I guess I have made my point clear – it is all about the people.
Change is hard because we don’t know for sure what will happen. We don’t see how it will impact us. We don’t know if we will like the outcome or if we can adapt. We feel out of control. Change means stepping out of our comfort zone into the unknown. Even if we don’t like our current state, the unknown future state is frightening.
If you can buy into the premise that change starts with people, then let us examine the emotions behind change using the Kubler-Ross Change Curve. This Change Curve is based on a model initially developed in the 1960s 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” because everyone deals with change differently. We are most effective as leaders of change when we are aware of and sensitive to an organization’s change culture and the people we serve. Let’s look at the curve.
The five major stages of grief Kubler-Ross wrote about are:
When Kubler-Ross wrote about these stages, she was cautious to explain that these are normal reactions we have to tragic news. She called them defense mechanisms or coping mechanisms. This is precisely what they are when we apply the model to cope 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. Sometimes, we will feel like we are moving forward only to hit a disappointment or a reality that pushes us back again. Kubler-Ross said the stages can last for different periods and will replace each other or exist side by side at times. In many ways, the change curve is more like a roller coaster.
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.
Denial (or Shock)
“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 or that it is affecting 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 real 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, their families, 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. We become aware of the losses associated with the change, and what we must leave behind. This has the potential to move people towards a sad state. They may feel down and depressed and have low energy.
The depression stage is often noticeable in other ways within 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 who stopped giving their best when they felt their jobs were at risk and that their employer no longer cared. One indication of the 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 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 the change will 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 colleagues to search for answers. Having a place to discuss your fears has proven to be critical to moving into the acceptance phase.
“Maybe this is not so bad after all.”
“I’ve wanted 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 are 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 must get on with life. This can be a creative space which 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, acceptance builds the belief that something positive will come out of the change. It can be as simple as a renewed confidence in oneself 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.
Integration – the optimum outcome
“How do I demonstrate the ability to do my job this new way.”
“What barriers may inhibit me from being the best that I can be?”
“How can I help others adapt?”
I’ve taken the license to add a phase to the concept – Integration.
Successful change management results from integrating an outcome-oriented individual change management approach and an activity-oriented organizational change management approach. By aligning what we are trying to achieve with what we are doing, good change management methodology, which manages the people side of change, provides the structure and tools necessary to drive project results and outcomes. In the end, since the individual is truly the unit of change, successful change management must leverage an individual change management model and an organizational change management approach. You know you have made it when the individuals are talking the talk and walking the walk.
Kubler-Ross reminds us that we cycle between these stages, 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 and the stages they have been in. It’s also a huge relief to know that these reactions and feelings are normal and are not signs of weakness.
The Kubler-Ross model is also beneficial to identify and understand how other people are dealing with change. People immediately get a better sense of their reactions and why colleagues are behaving in a particular way.
Not everyone agrees that this model is useful. Its main criticism is that the five stages do not adequately describe the range of emotions that people experience. It is said that it makes too many assumptions when applying it and that not everyone experiences the same reactions and emotions. The model is often criticized for making assumptions about broad applicability. To be fair, 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 reaction. The point is that there is a cycle for dealing with change no matter what it looks like to you.
I find this model simple enough that it makes it useful to use and easy to understand. More importantly, it is easy to see in 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 agree that at the end of the day, each person 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 a key role in enabling migration from denial to acceptance.
We will continue the conversation on Change next week. Until then, have a great week!
ITeffectivity LLC was founded in 2013 with the mission of helping IT Leaders bring order to their ever-changing world. Since then, Mary has advised over 80 leaders on behalf of Fortune 100 firms to small non-profits.
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