Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who described the five stages of grief of terminal patients in her book On Death & Dying. The model has received a lot of criticism in the field of psychological, particularly in a writing by George Bonanno, who extensively analysed peer research and confirmed that there is no scientific evidence of the existence of these stages in grief, but rather that psychological Resilience is part of it.
So what is the relationship with Change? Despite the critics in the area of psychiatry, this model started circulating and being used in the change management circles already in the eighties. In 2003, Deone Zell from the California State University applied the model in a paper titled Organizational Change as a Process of Death, Dying and Rebirth in which she showed that large organisations staffed with specialised professionals are less likely to accept Change easily. This has later been used also in other papers.
It is clear that the Kübler-Ross Change Curve based on those five stages fulfils a specific niche in change management – allowing you to focus on and deal with the emotional response of those affected by the Change.
Employees are ultimately entirely responsible for ensuring that Change is fully applied after all. You can use support systems and training to fill in the gaps, but the success of a change is highly dependent on the emotional buy-in of people.
The Kübler-Ross Model Stages
The model is composed of 5 stages, often remembered by using the acronym DABDA.
It’s essential to notice that already in her other work, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross considered these stages, not as a linear process, but rather observed these could be gone through in random order, people can jump backwards and repeat stages too. Which is why it is in any case necessary to understand each step and understand how to deal with each one to ensure we can encourage progression.
It all starts with an event or an announcement that produces the initial reaction of Denial. This can then develop in Anger due to the frustration of unmet expectations. Bargaining is a phase where the person tries to make sense of what happens. Depression is the stage where the person fights the Change but starts redeveloping some form of energy. Acceptance is finally the stage were moving-on happens.
Moving across these stages requires three types of support: Information and Communication, Emotional Support and Guidance and Direction — all critical in the way that Change can impact.
Applying the Method
The Stages in the Kübler-Ross model are beneficial for understanding reactions by people to a change process. But how can we use this model to the benefit of the Change Management process? Here the suggested steps for each stage.
Give them a Vision
We can call this a “Step zero”, and is effectively the idea to ensure that already through the announcement; you provide people with a Vision of why the Change is necessary, and how it can impact each person. Transparency is key here, as it will help ensure the emotional response will be more manageable and possibly shorter in terms of timing. However, please remember that you will still get an emotional response!
Guide them through Denial
Denial is usually short-lived and involves team members dismissing that the Change needs to happen, why it will happen, what will happen if it occurs, and even that it will happen at all. Changing too much all at once is the best way to have a significant impact on this Change. A more gradual approach to Change will help, as well as the involvement of people directly in the Design Process. Co-design is critical to onboard people early in the stage of Change, and allow them to jump over the Denial phase quickly.
Open Communication and Transparency are other key elements in ensuring everybody is brought around and moves on from this stage.
Get prepared for anger
Anger is often the most common emotional reaction to a Change, although it is essential to discern the type of anger, and also to whom it is directed. It could be anger at the Change itself, or at your decision to make the Change, or at the colleagues that are accepting it, or at the external environment that is seen as cause for the Change. It can manifest itself in many different ways: it is, however, more dangerous when anger does not erupt, and instead develops as underlying negative energy.
The first step with anger management is to ensure you understand the reasons for it, which is why it essential to plan in advance for it. Individual reactions will vary strongly, which is why it is important to identify the people that could have more intense reactions, and deal with them upfront.
Communication is again critical and should be focused on the source of anger, not on the symptoms.
Listen to bargaining
Bargaining can take different forms, but more often, employees will try to alter the change plan so that most things remain the same. This can be through conversations with others, small acts of “sabotage”, feedback to the teams, or by merely convincing themselves that Change (or parts of it) are not necessary and acting as if Change won’t happen in reality. Again, it is much better if the reaction is visible because it often can take a submerged stance, being much more challenging to manage.
Although it is important to listen, it is also vital to stick to the Change. Many change projects fail because key players in the process manage to bargain and lower the final results. Being firm here is a must, still with a strong focus on Transparency.
Designing proper feedback mechanisms in the change process will be an important step to manage the Bargaining process as well as providing emotional support through ad-hoc coaching, that focuses on the acceptance aspect.
It’s unrealistic to expect that employee’s reaction won’t affect their output during a Change process. During the Depression stage, productivity will dive while people try to adjust to the changes. You need to focus on limiting friction in employee’s activities and try to make the New rewarding and exciting.
Many think that the Depression phase is rare in business change processes. For sure, it is in clinical terms. However, some symptoms are evident in the phase of adoption when people will exploit any arising issue to fight back the Change. For example, it’s typical in a software adoption process, to utilise any bug or malfunctioning, to spread the message that the entire system doesn’t work. Which often brings people quickly back to a Bargaining phase. Don’t underestimate this Stage because it is a long-lasting one.
Acceptance is the stage when positive energy comes back to the peak. It is important to celebrate this moment, as it is here that people will go back to positive productivity.
The biggest mistake that many do is thinking that Acceptance happens only at the end of the project. Wrong. Again, the Kübler-Ross Change Curve is about emotional reaction to change. It can happen at any phase of a change process, seen from an individual perspective. Especially in large initiatives, we need to understand that the cycle happens in steps, not necessarily aligned to the phases of the project. That’s why it is necessary to celebrate the project’s achievement to stimulate acceptance by the individuals.
Celebration of Acceptance should, however, not be limited to the quick wins but should also be used when lasting results have formed, which is why reward and incentives tools are a positive way to reinforce this stage.
When change can be abused
If you read the Wikipedia Article dedicated to the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, you will find a diagram that I do find very interesting, as it is inspired by the research of Kübler-Ross, but is somehow different from what is more commonly used.
I was interested in this representation and quickly went through the web to discover its real cause. It comes from an original PowerPoint deck, used by a consulting firm called Orga Consultants, which in 2007 supported France Telecom / Orange in a management training program focused on a restructuring process, which became famous due to several suicides that happened as a consequence of this. The essential resources are still available online thanks to the Internet Archive: here the original Powerpoint Deck, here the original article that references this model, here the blog post where I found the reference.
It’s interesting to notice how Change Management support can be perceived as being an “abuse”, and a way to impose Change, rather than facilitate.
These cases do exist, but the practitioner must focus on the ethical aspect of Change, always.
This said, I still find this visual representation somewhat appealing, also because it relates visually with what we often call a “cycle”.
What’s good about the model
The Kübler-Ross Change Curve is an excellent tool to provide a framework to anticipate and manage the emotional reaction of employees, linking in the effects on productivity of the Change process. It also shows the importance of the Human Factor in any change process, and the importance of considering individuals as well as teams in the process itself.
Anticipating some of the emotional stages, and preparing the teams (and especially managers) to focus on these is key for success, and especially to make change stick.
What’s bad about the model
Emotions are not easy to predict, and not everyone will fit this model. Mainly, too many practitioners preach the idea that the stages are in sequence, creating plans that address each emotional reaction at a specific step in the change process. This may lead to odd situations, where some of the steps might not form at all, or might be in a different order.
Also, this model does not provide a guideline on how to implement Change. It needs, therefore, to be supported by a Change model, that takes into consideration what to do. It is especially impossible to create a universally actionable checklist of things to be done following the model.
Conclusion: the Kübler-Ross Change Curve
I always found the Kübler-Ross Change Curve as an extraordinary learning illustration on the importance of emotions in a Change process. It is not a tool that solves issues, but instead gets the change team and the managers prepared on how employees might react. It also makes evident the need to focus on Resilience as a competency. Transparency becomes visible in the process to enable Change, as well as collaboration. And I believe the model should also be considered inside any Organisation Design process.
This becomes a great model also to evaluate the Change Management framework we might choose to progress through Change. Any model that doesn’t include a focus on emotion is risky and should be avoided. Same for the models that only provide one of the mitigation tools illustrated here.
And you? Have you been using Kübler-Ross successfully?