I was recently reading an article about the seven stages of grief (based on the model created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross) and I realized they correlated directly with change management in an organization. Because at the end of the day, when people are hearing about change, often they are mourning the loss of “how things used to be”.
If your team has recently gone through a change (which let’s face it, I’m sure we all have had some sort of change, it’s the way of the world today), see if anything on the list below feels familiar!
- Shock or Disbelief – “Wait, what?! I had no idea we were considering something different. I thought what we were doing was working. Where is this coming from? Are you sure?” People’s immediate response will come across as confusion or a lack of understanding. It’s important that you take time to help them really hear what you are saying. It’s important that leader’s stay on point and reiterate the original messaging. If you stray from your approved or original message, you potentially create more confusion or give them something to hold on to that is not realty. The message may be hard, you should build in empathy into your messaging, but you will also need to be comfortable with them taking the time to work through these stages, and not rush them or ignore it. Let them keep asking questions as they work through this stage of disbelief.
- Denial – “This is a joke. There is no way we are actually going to start doing (stop doing) this. It’s our foundational core.” When people hear about change, they often take it personally and tie it to something bigger than it potentially is (or rightfully tie it to something bigger). They will start poking holes into the new plan or way of doing things. This is their way of showing the news just doesn’t make sense or won’t work and therefore not actually happening. Just like with stage #1, you have to empathize and listen, without going too far. Don’t say you are sorry (this can show that you don’t agree with the decision) and don’t say that you can understand what they are going through or that you know this is hard. Unless you have literally been in the same situation and in their shoes, you don’t know. You can assume, but you don’t know the full affect this will have on them so it will come across as patronizing and will make the third step worse!
- Anger – “You didn’t think this through. You don’t care how this affects people. You only care about money. This is BS. This was your plan all along. Forget this, I’m outa here.” This is the step where you need to start stepping in more and direct the conversation as best you can, versus just listening. Think about some of the possible things they can throw back at you and be ready with some responses. As always, be ready to listen but then help them see how what they are saying is not the truth. If they seem to be stuck in this stage, let them know there will be a time when they will have to continue to move to acceptance or decide that they can’t and move on. You can’t let someone who is negative or not able to accept the change stay as they will poison others or just stopped the team from being productive and successful. But hopefully once they have time to work through their anger, they will start asking questions again and move to the next step.
- Bargaining – “But what if we try this instead or first? Who can I talk to about this, maybe they didn’t consider X or maybe they didn’t even know about Y? What if I work on this idea on the side before we implement throughout?” People will often try to find a different solution so this new reality doesn’t have to exist. There will try to think of something you must not have thought of since you don’t do the actual work (you are too removed as a leader). They may even find some piece of data that will support their new saving solution. Make sure you understand all the possibilities the leadership team considered in order not to be pulled into the bargaining. It’s also important to let them know that the decision is final, that nothing they can come up with will change that. Otherwise they will continue to try and not move on to acceptance. One thing you can offer, if appropriate, is to provide feedback on the new processes or program (again knowing that it won’t change what is happening today). Or maybe they can be part of the first group to be trained on the new thing so they can help train others. Sometimes ownership of the new thing will help people continue to move through the stages.
- Guilt – “I feel bad that I am still here, or I still get to work on this project when my friends and peers aren’t/don’t.” I have found this stage is most common during layoffs or job eliminations. Sometimes it comes up with reorganizations where some of the department will work on one project and another will work elsewhere (and people feel like one project is better than the other). It’s important that you are prepared to explain how the decision was made (why one role stays and another doesn’t or how it was decided who or the many would be let go). And through that, you can encourage and praise the person who remains (or appears to be working on the better project). But be careful not to speak ill of the people directly effected or provide false praise to the person in front of you. Like every stage, help them move through this stage as much as possible since it will lead to the depression stage, which other than anger, can be the place people get stuck.
- Depression – “I don’t know if I can come in every day if this is where we are going as a team/company. What if I can’t do the new thing they are asking of me? What if I don’t like it?” This stage will be a combination of doubt about themselves and some final remnants of concern about the company. A part of them won’t know if they want to stay and be part of this new version of the team, department, role, etc. But another part of them will start to wonder if they can do the new thing that is being asked of them. Ask them to at least give the new thing a chance. Start with a short window, maybe two weeks. You can encourage them to continue to come to you with questions and feedback. Hopefully during that time they will continue to accept the new world. If not, it gives you a chance to stay close enough to it to make sure they don’t go backwards in the steps and help them come to the right answer for them. But you also want to help them understand how you and the rest of the leadership team is committed to making sure this is a successful transition for them. Set milestones and check points to make sure they feel supported and committed to this new way.
- Acceptance and Hope – “Let’s see what happens. Maybe there is some good with this new approach. I may not like it today, but I’m willing to try”. After they have worked through all the stages, and you have listened and coached them, they have gotten to the point of acceptance. Continue to check in to make sure they are still committed and engaged and watch for any slips backwards. Continue to listen and support and they will continue to be great members of your team!
Each person on your team may not go through each stage, just like each mourner deals with grief differently. But it’s important to look for the signs of the above within your team and use some of the tips above to help each person on your team work through their grief as they say good-bye to the old way and come to accept the change.
PS You also have to recognize that you will go through these stages. Make sure you allow yourself time to grieve, process and accept the change. And don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who can help you!
What are some things you have done to help yourself or your team members through change? Share your tips below or feel free to reach out with questions or for specific advice!