We live and lead in a time of incredible change. Whether a result of shifting demands due to foreign trade or international competitors or increasing regulatory requirements or evolving consumer preferences, strategic vision requires leaders to interpret the market conditions, make adjustments to business strategy and effectively communicate those adjustments across our organizations. It is often said that the only constant in life is change.
Change is messy, uncomfortable and typically avoided by many people. In my experience working in the technology industry, I have found seasons with high volume of change to be filled with innovation, opportunity and possibility. For leaders to effectively guide their organizations through such seasons of change, I’ve found the following model to be useful as a means of 1) recognizing behavioral responses they are seeing inside the organizations they lead in response to change, 2) understanding what people need in response to that stage of transition and 3) providing the appropriate leadership support to facilitate organizational change in the most empathetic and understanding ways possible.
In her book, “On Death and Dying,” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) describes five stages of grief, as a way to understand the normal range of emotions people experience when dealing with change in their lives—or in their workplaces. Her research observes and details these five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In more recent years, organizational development professionals, including myself, have adapted and applied this model to understand how people experience organizational change.
Normally in organizations, a decision is made by senior leadership, which may include but is not limited to the executive team and/or board of directors. A period of due diligence and viability testing may follow, and then a plan is developed to communicate and execute the decision. Press releases are crafted, announcements are made and town halls may be held to convey the message. And then the organization reacts. At this point, leaders may forget that they have had the time and opportunity to process, think and reflect about the impending change before making such announcements, whereas their teams are just now learning about the change for the first time.
Change doesn’t happen at the flip of a switch or the drop of a press release. Change efforts often fail when leaders underestimate the very real emotional response that takes place for the human beings inside their organizations. The simplified four-stage model that follows is an adaptation of Kubler-Ross’ model, and has been utilized in multiple organizations across industries to help leaders recognize, understand and respond to the needs of their people in times of transition. This four-stage model includes: denial, resistance (which combines anger and bargaining), exploration and commitment.
At the time of announcing any size or complexity organizational change, leaders can anticipate that people will first respond with what is called denial. This stage includes such emotions as fear, shock and denial itself. Associated behaviors may be comments or why questions like, “Why is this happening? Why would they do this to me?” When observing such behaviors, leaders can suppose the person is experiencing denial. This is a normal and natural first reaction to change of any magnitude or complexity. Typically, people in the denial stage are searching for information. They are looking to understand what the change is about, why it is necessary, what is driving the change, who made the decisions, based on what information, and most importantly—how will I be impacted?
In response to this type of reaction, leaders can effectively support their people and address the need for information through communication. It is recommended that leaders provide as much information as is appropriate and possible to truthfully, transparently and legally provide, depending on the nature of the change. Transparency is key here, as it reinforces trust in the leadership team and belief that good and right decisions are being made on behalf of the people, the organization and the community. In the absence of information, human beings have a tendency to fill in the gaps through our imaginations, often creating worst-case scenarios. By providing real-time access to accurate information, leaders who effectively communicate can better equip their teams and stakeholders to deal with the changes being introduced.
There may be times when a leader does not know the most current information, or may not be able to provide updates as frequently as people would prefer. In these instances, the leaders may direct people to the most reliable information sources, such as a dedicated website, created as a communication channel specifically for the organizational change. This action serves a secondary purpose of empowering people to obtain the most current and reliable resources as needed, since each person will work through the change process in their own time and sequence.
Further, setting expectations about frequency of informational updates can help alleviate concerns that people may have about missing updates or not receiving timely information. Simply knowing when the next update will take place may relieve this pressure. Then, leaders may continue to reinforce this by establishing a regular cadence of information. For example, a leader may set a recurring time of Tuesday at 9 a.m. to provide a weekly update of all related announcements. This cadence reinforces trust and reliability of information, and of leadership, during the time of uncertainty. It is further recommended to offer a channel for two-way communication: ask the team, either formally or in conversation, “What questions do you have?” “What information do you need to be on board with this change?” And use this to inform the next set of updates. Be sure to set up a system that cascades the updated information, leveraging each level of leadership through the organization. Every level of leader needs to be singing from the same song sheet and providing consistent messages for the change to be well-supported by employees.
Next, leaders will begin to recognize the stage known as resistance, which is an even more emotional stage, often combining reluctance, resignation, anger and frustration. In fact, this is where leaders may begin to see a decline in performance, resulting both from the temporary stall related to reluctance or resignation, but also related to any associated learning curve for new process. Even if it’s a very minor change, people will need to unlearn old ways of working, learn new ways and then return to efficiency over time. Learning curves take time. When leaders recognize these behaviors, it is important to understand that people simply need empathy. They will need to express what they are experiencing and name the emotions in order to move forward. This is a normal, natural and necessary part of the transition, which cannot be ignored or shortened.
People need the time, space and opportunity to articulate what they are experiencing. Leaders can help their teams by listening and allowing the space to express what needs to be said. This type of empathetic listening is similar to what program fellows experience during synthesis. Once they have been heard, people will be more prepared to move forward into the next stage.
When people begin to consider possibilities, they have entered the stage known as exploration. Leaders might recognize behaviors, such as questioning how: “How will I, the team, the division be structured in the new organization?” “How will we deliver our products to market?” It’s about considering, “How could this change possibly be good for me (my team, my customers)?” “How could there be positive implications for me or others?” The emotions and the behaviors associated with this stage are hopefulness, thoughtfulness and frequently, impatience or eagerness to get to the next phase of the process.
People who find themselves in this stage of transition are looking for ideas. Leaders can support this stage by facilitating exploration, discovery and innovation conversations, whether in small group or one-on-one settings. By including people in the process of shaping a new future, this inclusive dialogue creates an opportunity for people to let go of resistance, and begin embracing future possibilities. Once people begin to see a new vision of the future, the organization begins to see a motivational accelerator. It begins to be exciting, productive and fulfilling to work there again.
Finally, the organization enters the fourth stage of transition, called commitment. In this stage, behavior often appears as acceptance, trust and team cohesion. There may be a sense of relief that the organization has returned to a sense of normalcy. In this stage, people are accepting the new way. They are seeking recognition of new right behaviors and actions, as reinforcement and reassurance of the new way of operating. Leaders can provide those positive consequences through reward of the desired behaviors. Some leaders may overlook the importance of this critical step in the change leadership cycle. However, organizations that execute this stage well become more resilient and adaptable, preparing their people for future cycles of transition.
It’s important to remember that even though the process appears to be very organized, linear and sequential, the reality is we’re dealing with human behavior, so it can be non-linear, messy and emotional. By recognizing behavioral responses to change, understanding what people need and providing the appropriate leadership support, leaders can set their teams up for successful organizational change.
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- Bridges, W. (1986). Managing organizational transitions. Organizational Dynamics, 15(1), 24-33. http://dx.doi. org/10.1016/0090-2616(86)90023-9
- Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.