Respecting the five Stages of Grief within Change Processes

During several consultations I am asking myself “is this company ready for Change”? Is the management aware what will happen if they will start implementing the shiny plans made by The Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey? In a second step I am asking myself an even more important question “is this business ready for the impact of Change”? And why am I asking this myself? Because management often forgets that their white collar situation is a totally different one from the one of all the blue collar employees and lower management positions (you can check the why here, if you take a look at my article on the marathon-effect of Change). Whenever the management makes significant changes to a business this will have an effect on work and staff and the overall performance will go through what is known as the Kübler-Ross Change Process or Change Curve.

The Change Process is based on 1960s research by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who initially did studies with terminally ill patients . She demonstrated that they would progress through five stages of grief when informed of their illness. She went on to propose that this model could be applied to any dramatic life changing situation and therefore also any work situation. Management should also include a certain level of awareness of the Change Process and the effect that it has on staff performance.

Kübler-Ross’s original five emotional stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (popularly known by the acronym DABDA) can be described as follows:

  1. Denial — “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
    Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death. Denial can be conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, or the reality of the situation. Denial is a defense mechanism and some people can become locked in this stage.
  2. Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a person experiencing anger from grief.
  3. Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
    The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time…” People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?..” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death.
  4. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
    During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the ‘aftermath’. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation.
  5. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. This stage varies according to the person’s situation. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief.

Each person reacts individually to change. Some may spend a lot of time in stages 1 and 2 while others will move into stage 3 much faster. If you are a company that has a change plan to implement then make sure that you have thought through the impact on staff; put in place what is needed to support them and just in case, make sure that you have good grievance procedures and great communicators in place.


3 thoughts on “Respecting the five Stages of Grief within Change Processes

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