A few words of caution about the “change curve”

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss American psychiatrist who specialized in near-death studies. In her famous book “On Death and Dying” (1969), she introduced her “five stages of grief” or DABDA modell – Denial, Aggression, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Kübler-Ross initiated her study of the psychology of terminally ill, but later expanded her theory to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, major rejection, the end of a relationship or divorce, or the loss of a job.

The change curve has later been used as a basis for organizational change management, and is to be found in various shapes and forms, more or less true to the original concept.

Based on my own observations in transformation programs, the change curve does have some truth to it – but one should be very careful applying it as a foundation for a change management plan.

The initial stage “denial” has been much debated not only within change management, but also among psychologists concerned with the question of loss and grief. In their Handbook on Grief Recovery, John W James and Russell Friedman states that “Throughout the years of studies of grievers, we have not met one single person who was in denial about their situation”.
In business transformation programs however, denial could still be relevant for some individuals. For instance, in the early phase of a restructuring of the organization, some individuals may believe that they will be exempted or receive special treatment due to their long service with the company, their relationship with the manager or their unique set of skills. As a transformation leader, this can be handled by ensuring clarity and reiteration of communication regarding the transformation initiative and the available options.

Equally, other stages on the change curve may be more or less relevant based on the character of the transformation. Job loss or redeployment may definitely lead to feelings of aggression and / or depression – while pure process and IT related changes may be very challenging for the individuals not so much due to suffering of individual loss than because they need to acquire new skills and change their way of working. In such programs, individuals may reach acceptance within a matter of weeks or days – but will have a long journey ahead of them in terms of achieving the required competence development.

Personality, beliefs and general attitude significantly affects the ability to change. A person who has been in the same job for 10 years or more may find a transition into a new job very challenging, while someone with a project based cv may adopt more easily. Rogers diffusion concept of Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards may be a good indication of the diverse reactions to change of an average population.

To describe the relationship between personality and change would require more than a blog post. I find Keirseys “Please Understand Me” very useful to explain different kinds of personalities in the work place. Keirsey bases his work on the classic Meyers-Briggs personality types, but is much more useful in explaining how people behave at work.

Without diving to much into the details, it is obvious that someone motivated by “security “or “identity” may find business transformation much more challenging than some one seeking “stimulation” or “knowledge”.

I would suggest that we see the 5 stages more as 5 common versions of how a person may react to a signficant change, rather than trying to predict the timing and duration of these stages. If leaders are prepared for each of the five reactions, they can do a better job of applying adequate leadership actions for the situation. For instance, a person who is in denial about a changing situation is not mentally open to discuss future roles and responsibilities, but needs clarity and iteration of the basic message. A person who is in the bargaining stage needs very firm direction, while someone in a state of depression needs relief and support. Basically, it all comes down to situational leadership.

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