"The only constant in life is change" is an often-quoted line, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. And while he may not have had modern businesses in mind when forming the concept, it certainly holds true.
Markets, customers, and technology keep evolving. Organizations have to adapt to keep up.
But the change process is far from second nature to most of us, even when we know it will have positive effects. On the contrary, it disrupts the status quo and can cause the people involved to experience turmoil.
Managers in particular may find it challenging to oversee change from its inception to final acceptance and integration. They face the double-whammy of having to mediate their team's emotional responses, and deal with their own personal transitions.
However, though we have to adapt to face new problems, the concept of change management is not new in the slightest.
For decades, psychologists have sought to unpack and examine the way people react to change. And so, over the years, different ways of understanding emotional reactions to change have been theorized.
In this article, we'll be taking a look at one of the most popular models: the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross change curve.
The Kübler-Ross change curve model was developed in 1969 by a Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. According to her model, terminally ill patients experience five stages of grief when learning about their diagnosis: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Kübler-Ross theorized that the same stages of personal transition are experienced by any person undergoing significant change, not only when they approach death. Since then, Kübler-Ross's change curve has become a popular and powerful model for understanding the challenges associated with organizational change management.
Over the years, the different stages have been modified, giving rise to numerous versions of the change model.
The change curve model describes the five core stages of natural emotional responses, often adjusted for use in the corporate world.
Since people embrace change at different paces, the stages vary from one person to another and may not follow the given sequence. Not all people experience all the stages shown in the model, and, equally, some may take longer at certain stages or revert to previous steps in the change process before moving forwards.
When a change is announced, people may experience shock. This is the first stage of the change curve, where people may feel numb and incapable of acting immediately. Although the shock stage is brief, it may lead to a loss of productivity because activities slow down and performance declines sharply. Shock is made worse if there is inadequate warning of the changes, leading to apprehension and uncertainty.
As the information sinks in, people tend to cling to the past. They deny the changes happening or ignore them, losing touch with reality. They hope that the changes won't be successful or won't affect them if they are. Denial occurs because people are comfortable with the status quo, fear failure, or feel their positions or privileges are threatened.
When people can no longer deny the reality of the situation, they may become frustrated with the changes. At this stage, people stop focusing on their work and begin resisting or protesting the change. They may feel angry and start blaming management or other team members, thus straining team relationships. This is the change curve's most stressful and unpleasant stage, resulting in the lowest performance.
As people realize their losses, they may be battling doubts, fears, regrets, or guilt and lose hope entirely. The stage is often characterized by withdrawal, apathy, disengagement, and a lack of focus. When the emotional burden feels too heavy, people may consider whether to continue their roles or quit.
This stage marks the onset of individual transitions. People begin testing and exploring their new future when they realize the changes could be permanent. They finally start to adopt positive mindsets and visualize better outcomes with the change.
With time, people lower their resistance and accept change, deciding to make the best of it. They'll plan for new ways of doing things and work towards achieving better outcomes. The acceptance will raise people's optimism, enthusiasm, engagement, and performance.
The decision stage is a critical milestone in organizational change management. However, you should include adequate support in your company culture to avoid possible regressions to a previous stage.
Integration is the final stage in the change curve when you start reaping the benefits of your hard work. The change has replaced the original situation, and everyone in the organization has begun working with the new reality. Individuals are aware of their responsibilities in the new situation and appreciate the benefits of the change. They also trust and hope that the new systems will continue to offer them more effective working practices.
Understanding people's emotional responses to change, as described in the change curve, is an invaluable practice in change management. It can help you plan and adjust how to support your team as they transition through each stage of the change curve. Adequate support for your team is a key step to accelerating change by reducing employee resistance.
Keep these three principles at the forefront as you leverage the change curve model.
Clear communication is the cornerstone of getting your team to move from their old ways toward your new goal. Communicate the need for change, the strategy of implementation, and its impact on the individuals involved. Constant communication is vital throughout the phases but critical in the stages of shock and denial when the change starts.
People may experience emotional turmoil as they respond to change, especially in the frustration stage. With careful planning, you can create a safe environment for people to express their opinions, providing an outlet for frustration without causing disruption.
Active listening and careful observation can help you respond appropriately to unforeseen reactions. In addition, you should give adequate reassurance and relevant support to help people manage their emotions.
Before people commit to the proposed reforms, they may want to explore the impact it will have on their work. This is common in the experiment stage. To avoid low productivity or losses as they find their way, you can anticipate the change with reskilling or upskilling.
Training will equip people with the skills they need, help them understand their new roles, and build their confidence.
Training is essential when it comes to introducing new software platforms. People accustomed to one tool may have difficulty adopting alternative options, even if they're much better. However, being dynamic and having a culture of keeping up with the latest systems can make your employees more flexible to change.
You should also invest in capability building to help them adapt quickly and equip your organization for future success and sustainability.
After successfully implementing change, don't be so busy counting your wins that you forget to celebrate the success with your team. The change journey might have been rocky and lengthy, but your business improvements are mainly due to hard work and collaboration from employees and other stakeholders.
The celebration isn't just about bringing this change event to a close. Appropriate recognition and reward at this point will reduce your team's resistance next time a change is needed.
People go through the change curve stages at varying rates, and it's essential to identify which state a person is in so that you can offer the right kind of support.
Here are some common signs to look out for:
Although most people go through similar stages before accepting change, each person is different: some will linger in certain stages for longer, and others may skip a step or slide backward during the journey. The change curve is a valuable guide to help organizations understand and manage their employees' emotional responses, but it should be applied flexibly.
Be prepared to have crucial conversations with your staff throughout the process so that you can hear their perspectives and provide the support they need. Ultimately, the way you guide your team through this curve will determine the success of your change management process.
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