THE Change Curve is based on a model originally developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process. Since then it has been widely utilised as a method of helping people understand their reactions to significant change or upheaval.

Kubler-Ross proposed that terminally ill patients would progress through five stages of grief when informed of their illness. She further proposed that this model could be applied to any dramatic life-changing situation. By the 1980s, the Change Curve was a firm fixture in change management circles.

The curve, and its associated emotions, can be used to predict how performance is likely to be affected by the announcement and subsequent implementation of significant change.

The original five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — have been adapted over the years. However, the majority of the versions are consistent in their use of the following basic emotions, which are often grouped into three distinct transitional stages:

 

Stage 1: Shock and denial

The first reaction to change is usually shock, and while frequently short-lived, it can result in a temporary slowdown and a loss of productivity.

Performance tends to dip sharply, individuals who are normally clear and decisive seek more guidance and reassurance, and agreed deadlines can be missed. The shock is often due to    lack of information, fear of the unknown and fear of looking stupid or doing something wrong.

After the initial shock has passed, it is common for individuals to experience denial. At this point, focus tends to remain in the past.  There is likely to be a feeling that as everything was okay as it was, why is there a need for change?

Common feelings include being comfortable with the status quo, feeling threatened and fear of failure.

Individuals who have not previously experienced major change may convince themselves that the change isn’t actually going to happen, or if it does, that it won’t affect them.

People carry on as they always have, may deny having received communication about the change, and may make excuses to avoid taking part in forward planning.

In this stage, communication is key. Reiterating what the actual change is, the effects it may have, and providing as much reassurance as possible, will all help to support individuals experiencing these feelings.

 

Stage 2: Anger and depression

After the feelings of shock and denial, anger is often the next stage. A scapegoat, in the shape of an organisation, group or individual, is commonly found.

Focusing the blame on someone or something allows a continuation of the denial by providing another focus for the fears and anxieties the potential impact brings. Common feelings include suspicion, scepticism and frustration.

The lowest point of the curve comes when the anger begins to wear off and the realisation that the change is genuine hits home. It is common for morale to be low and for self-doubt and anxiety levels to peak.

Depression is possible as the impact of the change is acknowledged. This period can be associated with apathy, isolation and remoteness.

People will be reassured by the knowledge that others are experiencing the same feelings. Providing managers, teams and individuals with information about the Change Curve underlines that the emotions are usual and shared, and this can help to develop a more stable platform from which to move into the final stage.

 

Stage 3: Acceptance and integration

After the darker emotions of the second stage, a more optimistic and enthusiastic mood begins to emerge. Individuals accept that change is inevitable, and begin to work with the changes rather than against them. Now come thoughts of exciting new opportunities, relief that the change has been survived and impatience for the change to be complete.

The final steps involve integration. The focus is firmly on the future and there is a sense that real progress can now be made. By the time everyone reaches this stage, the changed situation has firmly replaced the original and becomes the new reality. The primary feelings now include acceptance, hope and trust.

During the early part of this stage, energy and productivity remain low, but slowly begin to show signs of recovery. Everyone will have lots of questions and be conscious about possibilities and opportunities.  Normal topics of conversation resume, and a wry humour is often used when referring to behaviour earlier in the process.

 

Individual reactions

Each person reacts differently to change, and not all will experience every phase. Some people may spend a lot of time in stages 1 and 2, while others, who are more accustomed to change, may move fairly swiftly into stage 3.

 

Article by Chris Fenney, co-founder and director of Training Edge International. He has more than 30 years’ experience in training and management development. For more information, e-mail chris.fenney@trainingedgeasia.com or visit www.trainingedgeasia.com