Five Stages of Grief and Change Management

five stages of grief
Photo Credit: eClosure

The Five Stages of Grief are simple: 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining 4. Depression 5. Acceptance. But they’re also anything but simple.

Why am I talking about the five stages of grief today? Because they’re part of life and they’re even part of organizations. And this week I’m thinking particularly of the stages of grief in the context of change management. While we typically only use the word “grief” around funerals – it’s a valid label for the emotions we experience whenever and wherever we experience loss.

Loss happens in organizations and communities because things change. So part of effective change management means managing the grieving process.

The five stages of grief give us a map but with caveats. First, this is not a linear progression. People can start anywhere and circle through all the stages. We can go straight to depression or bounce back and forth between anger, bargaining and denial. Second, there is no time frame for each phase – you can’t schedule how long this process will last.

In the face of relationship loss, most of us assume acceptance just comes with time and that everyone will differ on how much time they will need. I see this assumption in organizations as well. “Just give them some time and they’ll come around” is a common attitude when people are resisting change. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

Managing Change in light of the Five Stages of Grief

Let’s say you plan out a grand new vision – great new things will come but it will mean cleaning house, reorganizing and streamlining. In an ideal world, you build consensus before implementing changes by gathering adequate feedback. You invite everyone affected to share in the vision by holding forums and discussion panels. You analyze what people will lose in the change, not just what they will gain. In this way, you make sure people feel valued and maintain some sense of membership.

This kind of process may allow you to avoid causing people grief all together. If they have had time to consider ideas before they’re set in cement, can help shape and design what’s coming, then the ownership and excitement they feel will mitigate the grief because they won’t feeling like they’re losing too much. Denial, Anger and Bargaining won’t even be necessary because they have ownership in the process. I think those aspects of grief often spring out of our sense of helplessness. When we realize how little control we have, we feel vulnerable and threatened. I see a correlation between these stages and our flight or fight response mechanisms when we’re in danger.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t live in the ideal world. Change is often handed down with little warning. All our defense mechanisms jump into action. The leadership can mitigate these emotions by implementing strong communications processes during the transition phase. People need to feel heard, valued and understood. They need to see that those in charge really understand how the changes will affect others – they need to know they still have a voice that is valued – they need to be given back some sense of ownership. Without these things, I think it’s almost impossible to get people to a place of acceptance and buy-in. And that can be devastating to the success of the vision.

Thoughts on this? How do you see change being implemented effectively or ineffectively around you? Have you experienced the five stages of grief? What kind of plan would you put in place to support grief during changes?