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 losing beloved ones: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and 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.
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 and 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 achieve acceptance (you can do the same exercise with yourself). So, how do you decide where a person stands on the change curve?
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 a lack of information and fear of the unknown. As a result, 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 question is a typical reaction of people who are comfortable with the status quo and fear failure.
In the stages of anger and doubt (also called depression), resistance is even more vital. 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. 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.
The last steps in the 5 stages of grief curve are about acceptance and moving on (also called integration). We enter a more optimistic state than the previous one as people accept and embrace change. 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. We often humour 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, while others who are more accustomed to change may move quickly 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 speed. Keep that in mind when you define your action plan to mitigate resistance.
At the stage of denial, communication is critical. For example, if you want to convince your stakeholders to support your change project:
Another good strategy is to leverage 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 behaviour is an optimistic stage of the 5 stages of grief curve, so keep it positive. Incorporate the changes you have made in life as usual or business as usual and celebrate success with everyone.
Let’s suppose you are not leading change in your organisation but in your personal life. Still, use the 5 stages of grief curve to understand where you stand. 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 resistance level depends on accepting 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 that 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 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.
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. But, of course, you will feel tempted to give up due to pressure, insecurity, and 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 – the dream or purpose you are chasing or the cause you stand up for.