In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published, On Death and Dying. In that book, she presented the emotional stages we go through when we grieve loss.
The stages of grief is heavy stuff. So, if you want immediate relief, check out what popular culture has done with it. Here’s Homer Simpson going through Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief and here’s a giraffe in a politically incorrect Robot Chicken skit doing the same.
what the research says
Kübler-Ross said we grieve loss by going through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In 2003, Kerri Kearney and Adrienne Hyle published a study that showed employees go through these five stages of grief when experiencing organizational change.
Kearney and Hyle also found that the final stage, acceptance, was actually unacceptable in organizations. Why? When Kübler-Ross did her study, people accepted death by letting go of all their resistance and, kind of just letting death happen. That giving-up is not what we want when we’re implementing change in our organizations. We don’t want apathetic people who just stop resisting, we want people to enthusiastically adopt the change.
3 lessons from the research
1. normal resistance to organizational change looks like denial, anger, bargaining and depression
There is a lot of talk about how to display emotions in the workplace, but there is little talk about non-judgemental acceptance of the negative emotions initiated by organizational change. We’re quick to blame the angry person instead of accepting that our own mismanagement of the change is the source of negative emotions.
When I teach organizational change management, I begin with my No Broken People Rule. The No Broken People Rule states that those people who, “just don’t like change” actually don’t exist. We all love positive changes and resist the negative ones. If we think someone is resisting an organizational change because they are one of those broken people who just don’t like change, then we will include the wrong remedies and mitigation in our change management plan.
2. people resist change because they are losing something
Imagine that Ernie Engineer is angry because the new email policy limits storage capacity and requires users to save attachments to a new document management system. Ernie is likely angry because he’s losing the way he’s worked for the past few years. Ernie is mad because the new system will take time to learn and, initially, too much time to use. Next, Ernie might be mad because he’s feeling less competent. In the past he was known as Mr. Organized, but now he’s afraid that he’ll be known as Mr. Can’t-find-his-documents. Ernie is losing productive time and his reputation.
Once we understand and accept what Ernie is losing, we can fill that gap. Ernie needs training on the new system and extra time to become proficient. Most of all, Ernie needs to know that everyone still values him as a professional and his initial struggles with the new system are not a reflection of his competency as an engineer.
But, if we believe that Ernie just doesn’t like change, then after he goes through his emotional roller-coaster, all we’ll notice is that he has quietly accepted that the change is happening. But will he save all his attachments in the new system and use all the advanced features? Probably not. The only thing we’ll notice is that Ernie stopped complaining. That is not a successful organizational change. When we adequately define success, we can help Ernie become a super-user of the new system. Here’s how to do it.
3. define success (hint: it’s not acceptance)
Just wanting people to stop complaining and accept what’s happening is not the definition of a successful organizational change. That’s the definition of apathy.
A successful organizational change is defined as a specific and sustained change in behavior. In our example above, we might define success as, “Within 30 days of implementation, engineering staff are using the new system to store and retrieve all documents without requiring additional time, and they are using the system’s advanced features to improve productivity and work quality.” Then, throughout the life of the system, we would continue to monitor system use to understand if this change in behavior is being sustained.
This might sound like a lot of work, but if you’ve just spent a few million dollars on a new document management system, you will want to know if you are benefiting from the investment. We manage organizational change to ensure that we benefit from our investment in change.
How have you defined a successful change? How have you managed resistance to change? Let me know on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can also go to WorkFeelsGood.com and subscribe for more articles like this one.