How to apply the Kübler-Ross change curve in the workplace

Noah Duncan
March 3, 2021
4
Minutes

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Major changes in a work environment, whether they be adjustments to management, updates to office technology, or staff changes, can be hard for a team to get used to and incorporate into their day-to-day routine. Enter the Kübler-Ross Change Curve.


You may find that employees are resistant to change, asking questions like Why does this need to change? Didn’t it work fine before? Why should I have to adjust? Can’t I just do it the old way? You may be asking these same questions yourself, too. 


The Kübler-Ross Change Curve, also known as the Kübler-Ross Model, is an effective tool business owners and managers can use to understand these natural reactions to change. 


Read on to learn more about the stages of accepting change so you can lead your team toward enhanced productivity and continued success in an ever-evolving business landscape. 

The origins of the Kübler-Ross change curve

You may recognize the name Kübler-Ross. That’s because the Kübler-Ross Change Curve is also known as the five stages of grief, which seek to describe the series of powerful emotions human beings experience in the process of losing a loved one or as we approach death ourselves. 


The five stages of grief are:

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance


The Kübler-Ross Model was developed by pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and first introduced in her famous book On Death and Dying, published in 1969. The book is based on years of research that Dr. Kübler-Ross collected while interviewing terminally ill patients. It’s full of conversations with patients, the professionals taking care of them, and their families, all of which shed light on the various ways this kind of profound change affects human beings. 

At the time, very little was written about the near-death experience, so Dr. Kübler-Ross devoted her work and research to furthering our collective understanding of what happens to us when we face the inevitable. After the book was published, the model was widely accepted as an authority on the grief process and is still used today. 



Now, you may be thinking this is kind of a heavy concept to apply to changes in the workplace, which is fair. 😰


But the Kübler-Ross model can be applied to many different situations related to change, such as financial troubles, relationship difficulties, and changes at work. 

The stages of the change curve

It’s important to understand that the stages of the change curve don’t necessarily follow one after the other. Grief, which can be applied to any major change, is a deeply personal experience; it’s never clean, nor is it linear, and it’s different for everyone. 


In general, when faced with change, people follow a curve based on the five stages of grief. The name of each stage varies from one interpretation to the next, but each change curve outlines the same process.

Shock and denial 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, especially unexpected changes, bring on overpowering emotions that trigger our defense mechanism. We don’t want to believe the news, so we pretend it’s not really happening. This is a necessary step that gives us time to absorb and begin to process the new information.



But we can’t deny it forever, and we’re often forced to face reality before we’d like to, which means this stage is often the shortest. As our initial defense mechanism begins to wane and we’re confronted with the reality of our situation, powerful emotions begin to rise.

Anger

As the gravity of a situation becomes more evident, we become angry, and we usually direct that anger at some outside force. In the case of a business, the anger might be directed at the business owner, manager, or economy that is forcing these changes. 


Anger is the other half of our defense mechanism; it masks our deeper emotions as well as the reality that we will, in fact, have to adapt. This stage covers a range of feelings from pervasive irritability to full-on rage. 

Bargaining and self-blame

Eventually, the anger turns inward, and the wheels begin to spin in our heads. Is this change my fault? Am I bad at my job? Do we really have to make the change? Can’t we avoid it?


Once we start to understand the change is really happening, and there’s nothing we can do about it, then we want to delay it or make compromises. Okay, I understand the change is happening. What if I incorporate a few of the changes but mostly stick to what I know? What can I say or do to get out of the change that will occur?

Depression and confusion

At this point, there’s no more running. There’s nothing we can do to change the situation. Plus, learning a new thing is hard, and our confusion makes it easy to get down on ourselves. We may feel listless, unmotivated, foggy and confused, and generally apathetic toward our job. Why aren’t I getting this? There’s nothing I can do. 

These feelings of sadness, although deeply unpleasant, are a necessary part of the healing process. It means we’re beginning to accept reality, even if we don’t like it. 


Acceptance and exploration


It may take time, but eventually, we resign ourselves to the change. Once we accept it’s inevitable, we have no choice but to adapt and explore what the change has to offer. We engage with the new situation and begin to experiment. 

Problem solving and integration 

Although not part of the original five stages of grief, this is an important additional step for dealing with change in the workplace. At this stage, we do more than simply accept the situation; we begin to feel positive about it. We feel renewed and can problem solve effectively. Once we’re past the learning curve, we can begin to integrate the changes and move forward with confidence. 


It’s a wonderful thing for a manager to see...

Change curve tips for managers

Don’t spring surprise changes

Save the surprises for workplace birthday parties!

Don’t spring surprises on your team and expect them to adapt immediately. People need time to process change. If your business is facing a major change, such as adopting new software, merging with another company, or reworking the management structure, give your team time to get used to the idea before the change occurs.


If you can, make an announcement a few weeks or months in advance, providing clear details on when the change will occur, how things will change, and who will be affected. This will allow your team to move through some of the stages of the change curve in advance. 



Be open and honest with your team

Be open and honest with your team so rumors don’t spread. It’s good practice to keep your team in the loop on major company changes since rumors can easily take on a life of their own and make the situation seem much worse. 


Apply effective meeting management and make sure there’s enough time to discuss any upcoming company changes. Ensure you provide adequate information about the upcoming change and allow your team to ask questions or address any concerns they may have. 


💡 Run effective meetings with WorkPatterns, the meeting management system that keeps employees engaged, productive, and aligned.

Give feedback as people work through change

In the midst of a change, pay close attention to each member of your team, checking in with each individual to understand how they are adjusting. Use one-on-one meetings to see how they are progressing through the stages of the change curve. 


Provide guidance and constructive feedback. Ensure you acknowledge the difficulty and stress of the change, and give kudos to the progress an employee makes.


Feedback shouldn’t be random or reserved for when a mistake is made. Create a culture of continuous feedback, so every problem is solved as soon as it arises, and every success is celebrated.

Provide change management and adaptability training

Managers can prepare a team for upcoming changes before they occur. Don’t wait until you’re in the midst of a major change to ask your team to adapt. Change management and adaptability are learned skills that can be practiced and fine-tuned.


Change management helps teams accept change and positively move forward in the face of it. Adaptability is the ability to adjust and respond as inevitable changes occur. Change is a constant in every part of our lives, and that’s not going to change. 😉   


Today, workplaces are faced with frequent and rapid change, and it’s up to employers and managers to provide the training needed for their team to adapt positively and effectively. 

How WorkPatterns can help

WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. In the face of change, communication is key to ensuring a smooth transition. WorkPatterns provides the tools teams need for effective meetings, constructive feedback, and smart goal management.


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