The 5 stages of grief that explain resitance to change

The Grieving Curve is based on a model initially developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the 5 Stages of grief – the emotional journey we experience over a loss of beloved ones: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Since then, it has been utilised to help people understand their reactions to significant changes or disruptions in life. Upon its growing popularity, the model became widely known as the Change Curve and has been adapted to reflect the behaviour in organisations when teams are faced with the need for a change: denial, anger, doubt, acceptance and moving on. So, we often decide on a course of action by understanding where people stand on the change curve.

The change curve

 

1. Identify the stage

When you kick off your transformation and identify your stakeholders (people interested in your project), invite them to a meeting and inform them about your plans. Collect their reactions and try to place them on this curve. If you have doubts, go back and ask more questions, get more feedback. They can be anywhere between ‘denial’ and ‘acceptance’, depending on their openness to your goal and their own goals. It is highly improbable that they are at the stage of ‘moving on’ as they have to see some results from your work.

Depending on their behaviour, you should adopt different strategies to overcome their resistance and help them move towards acceptance (you can do the same exercise with yourself). So, how do you decide where a person stands on the change curve? 

Denial

In the stage of denial, also called shock and denial, the first reaction is usually traumatic. This initial shock, while frequently short-lived, can result in the stakeholder wanting to slow you down or make you change your mind and drop the idea. The surprise is often due to lack of information and fear of the unknown. Your reaction might be the same. You might even fear looking stupid or doing something wrong as you will be doing different things from the people around you.

After the initial shock has passed, it is common to experience denial. At this point, everyone tends to maintain focus on the past. There’s likely to be a feeling that as everything was ‘OK’ as it was, why change? This is a typical reaction of people who are comfortable with the status quo and fear failure.

Anger and doubt

In the stages of anger and doubt (also called depression), resistance is even stronger. After the feelings of shock and denial, anger is often the subsequent reaction. It is common to blame others for fears about what the upcoming change might cause. Stakeholders could frame you as a failure and withdraw support if you don’t show results or progress or if they don’t like the results so far. Things and beliefs tend to be exaggerated at this stage. The lowest point is when anger begins to wear off, and everyone realises that the change is unavoidable. After that, it is common for anxiety levels to peak. People tend to fixate on minor issues or problems, losing perspective of the bigger picture, often to the detriment of progress.

If you act cleverly whilst your stakeholders are in the first stage of the curve (the denial), you might avoid this second stage and go directly to the next one👇.

Acceptance and moving on

The last stages are about acceptance and moving on (also called integration). This is a more optimistic state than the previous one, as people accept change and even embrace it. Usually, there is no friction and resistance as everyone sees the results and benefits of the change. The final step involves integration, moving on to a better future. By the time everyone reaches this stage, the changed situation has firmly replaced the original and becomes the new reality. Humour is often used when referring to behaviour earlier in the process.

Each person reacts differently to change, and not all will experience every phase. For example, some people may spend a lot of time in the anger and doubt stage, whilst others who are more accustomed to change may move pretty fast to acceptance. If you have several stakeholders, it is highly probable that they will be at different stages and are likely to travel at their own speed. Keep that in mind when you define your action plan to mitigate resistance.

How to deal with stakeholders?

So, you have identified where your stakeholders stand on the change curve. Now, how do you deal with it? Dealing with resistance is not about tools; it is about soft skills. Still, two standard approaches work every time and bring results: communicate and share success all the time.

At the stage of denial, communication is critical. For example, if you want to convince your stakeholders to support your change project:

  1. Inform them about everything relevant: the actual change, the action plan, and the results you expect.
  2. Provide as much reassurance as possible.
  3. Reiterate continuously about how you will work on your goal, the future benefits that matter to all and the plan to mitigate the risks.

It is crucial to move through anger as it is the strongest point of resistance in change management. During this stage, listen. People need to express themselves. So please pay attention, mirror their concerns and reassure them that you are moving forward with your plan. Show results. Quick wins are good leverage to use at this stage. Double your efforts to deliver results when you notice that the anger diminishes and is replaced by doubt. Keep informing and explaining your work. Ask for feedback and discuss your progress openly.

Another good strategy is to leverage with any stakeholder at the acceptance stage to convince the rest to move forward. How can you spot that ally? When people start accepting change, they ask questions about what is next. This is a positive stage of the change curve, so keep it positive. Incorporate the changes you have made in life as usual or business as usual and celebrate success with everyone.

The change curve for stakeholders

 

How to deal with yourself?

Let’s suppose you are not leading change in your organisation, but your personal life. Still use the change curve to understand where are you standing. For example, you might be considering a career or lifestyle change. Just like your stakeholders, you will feel resistance to change. And similar to them, your level of resistance depends on the acceptance of the change you are making. Ideally, you are making it because you want it. In such cases, from the very beginning, you are in the acceptance stage, and your resistance is limited to some of the actions you have to carry out, and you find unpleasant. But overall, you see the big picture, and the benefits of your change surpass all doubts or any discomfort you might have along the journey. 

If, however, you are in a situation where the change has been imposed on you, or you fear failure, you might be at the beginning of the change curve facing your own denial and anger. Don’t address possible stoppers; look for a mentor to help you move forward in such situations. A mentor can be a boss, a friend, a colleague, a psychologist… someone who can help you with objective guidance to overcome your resistance. 

When it comes down to convincing yourself about moving forward with making a change, do the following exercise: answer the following questions (I suggest you write down the answers). 

  1. What do I win if I make a change now?
  2. What do I lose?
  3. What will happen if I do nothing?

The answers to these questions will allow you to gain perspective. They will help you decide if you want the change. You will find the strategy to overcome all obstacles if you do. Of course, you will feel tempted to give up due to presure, insecurity, risk. At times you will doubt if all this effort is worth it. So, think about your goal and remind yourself of the bigger picture – of the dream or purpose you are chasing or the cause you stand up for.