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.
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
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
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
“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
We will discuss the role of the leader in managing change next time!
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