Change theory is useful to help us begin to create some order in what is a very chaotic process: change. No matter how many processes or plans you include in your change management strategy, at some point change will be chaotic as it involves people. People are different from each other: they have different priorities in life, different concerns, different private lives, different reasons for coming into work, etc.
Change in an organisation might throw people into the unknown. Individuals might have to experience ways of working they hadn’t encountered before. It is therefore difficult to foresee how your team members will react: they might even be surprised themselves.
One very popular change model which might help during the management of change is the curve created by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. After interviewing cancer patients as they came to terms with their disease, Kubler-Ross found that individuals tipically went through five emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. (If you enjoy watching Frasier, there is an episode which illustrates these stages of grief very well, I think it’s the first episode in series 6.)
Kubler-Ross then went on to research how this model fitted in with other life-changing experiences. It is worth saying at this point, that the psychologist was very aware that the model was just that, a model, and that the emotional journey through change is particular to each individual.
When facilitating discussion around personal change at work, I prefer to use the model created by Adams, Hayes and Hopson, who added a state of Shock/Relief at the beginning (also referred to as “immobilisation”) and the stages of experimentation and discovery before the change is integrated.
It’s worth noting how much self-esteem rises and falls, how there are quite a few emotions involved in the process and the fact that it takes time to be comfortable with the change.
This model might help you to structure your communication during change or to give you an idea of how people in your team and organisation might behave during transitions. But this is not a blueprint. There are plenty of other emotions that will surface and they will not appear neatly one after the other. Hopefully the curve will help you to anticipate some problems.
So, as you manage change in your team:
- Don’t be surprised if there is a loss of productivity when the change is announced as the information sinks in.
- Set some time aside for people to vent their anger or frustration, so that they can get their anger (or fears, insecurities etc) off their chest. Even if the change is welcome or supposed to improve their conditions, self-esteem will drop at some point.
- Be prepared to repeat information over and over again. It is difficult to assimilate or even hear new information when all sorts of emotions are bubbling up inside.
And above all, allow yourself to feel all sorts of emotions, it comes with the job.