As the saying goes, “Change is the only constant.” As a result, we all go through the change curve. The world is in a continuous state of flux. Our success depends on how swiftly and decisively we respond to the changes around us. Businesses are no different. They require us to make several course corrections in order to respond effectively to the changing market conditions.

However, there is a flip side to these changes. They cause friction in the existing fabric of employee-employer relationships. How people respond to change can be explained by the Change Curve Model.

The Change Curve was originally developed by psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969, as part of her study into how people cope with death and suffering. It can also extend to how humans deal and react with change and the typical stages we go through. How fast it takes us to transition through them, is down to our natural ability, openness to change and how we are led through it by our leaders, as well as the size of the change itself. The 5 stages are: Denial, anger, compromise, depression and then acceptance. 

In this article, we’ll work through an example, taking you through the five stages of the change curve. We’ll also discuss the means to cope with and lead your teams through it.

The Need for Change

Organisational change can become necessary for a plethora of reasons. These include:

  • Adapting to changes in Market conditions: With the increasing focus on climate change and clean fuel, there is a marked shift towards development of Electric Vehicles by automobile manufacturing companies.
  • Internal Problems of the Organisation: Due to constant infighting and rivalry among the different product groups, CEO Satya Nadella had to restructure Microsoft into teams with aligned and shared objectives and working in close coordination with each other
  • Technological upgradation and Digital revolution: Netflix was able to capitalise on the digital revolution and built its value as the leading visual content provider over online streaming of digital media
  • Improving business processes and increasing procedural efficiency: The restructuring of British Airways through lay-offs and rationalisation of routes helped turn it around from a loss making entity to highest ever profits within ten years
  • Expanding the business into new dimensions: This was the driving force behind Google’s restructuring into Alphabet with Google as a subsidiary
  • Rebranding campaigns to regain lost confidence: After the massive backlash against Nike for use use of child and forced labour by its contractors in South-East Asia, they had to engage in a huge rebranding exercise, projecting the various safeguards taken to avoid such issues in the future and enrolling celebrities to rebuild the image of the brand.

All the cases mentioned above are examples where some of the biggest organisations in the world had to undergo changes in order to respond to one or several of these factors.

Let’s look at an example.

The Case of British Airways

After having merged with four other companies in 1974, British Airways (BA) had become one of the largest airlines in the world. It inherited nearly 50000 staff and 215 planes from the merger. This led to a highly overstaffed organisation with an extremely rigid and bureaucratic management.

There was constant friction among the employees from the different organisations due to their cultural differences. All these problems were exacerbated by the Middle East Oil Crisis. 

British Airways was sinking with massive losses.

Soon after it was privatised, a new CEO Lord King came on board. What followed was a massive restructuring, including:

  • lay-offs for over 20000 people 
  • closing down of inefficient routes

The aim was to transform BA into a lean organisation. 

Through much churning, the changes were implemented and within ten years, it posted the highest profit in its history.

This makes it a classic case to consider how people would have reacted to the changes at British Airways.

The Five Stages of Flux – The Change Curve

From the time a certain change is introduced, those people affected by it, pass through a progression of five successive stages. These herald different emotional states, as they try to internalise and deal with this ‘loss’.

In an organisation, and faced with upheavel, employees rightly ask a number of questions like:

  • Will this change mean that I am going to lose my job?
  • Will I lose control of my work?
  • Will I be able to pay the bills if something bad happens?
  • What does this change mean to me?
  • Can I even implement this change?
  • Will I have the skills to work in the new way?
  • I really don’t want to change – leave me as i am!

Whilst we jostle for understanding, our brains become jolted into survival mode, and hence we go through the 5 steps of:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Compromise
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

At each stage, there is a gradual and incremental acceptance of the change until the final stage where it is assimilated and becomes a part of the norm.

Stage 1: Denial – We Can’t Change if We Don’t Accept It

This is the First stage of reaction to a major change. And it starts with a Shock! There is surprise at the sudden occurrence of the event and a sudden flux in happiness  and productivity. It takes some time for the brain to process the fact that a major change has occurred or is about to happen. 

In the case of British Airways, the decision to restructure would have come as a monumental disruption to not only the employees being laid off, but to their colleagues as well.

Shock is followed by denial, wherein people refuse to believe that the change has actually occurred. They prefer to hope that the changes would prove to be unsustainable and soon be revoked.

Clues as to whether people are at this stage of change can be heard by their reactions:

  • “It won’t work here”
  • “I give it a few months…”
  • “They don’t understand us or what we do.”
  • “I can’t believe what they’ve done.”

What should you do?

At this stage, patience and communication is the only solution. The element of Shock can be significantly reduced through proper communication.

Quick tips to manage Shock and Denial:

  1. Give the employees a picture of the organisation as it stands today.
  1. Showcase the need for change
  1. Explain the downside of not implementing the change
  1. Give them an outline of the proposed changes
  1. Invite comments and discussions on making improvements to the plan
  1. Give them a vision of where the organisation can go if the changes are properly implemented
  2. Help them identify the challenges that they may face through this change – (You can use this list to eliminate these issues as you go)
  1. You must hear them out patiently as they vent their feelings
  1. Try to prevent the employees from engaging in groupthink. Where you can, try to ensure that all communication should be directed individually, instead of encouraging large group gatherings

Involving these stakeholders in the decision making process can serve to significantly shorten the denial phase. This is referred to as co-designing the change. Stratos Innovation Group give a good overview in their article.

Stage 2: Anger – We Know Change is Here to Stay

This stage is typically classified by outbursts of anger. The object of the outburst can be varied. Consider the example of BA. The employees would have been angry and directed it at any of the following:

  • At management for imposing the changes: In the case of British Airways, the new CEO would have faced a lot of flak from the employees and the unions for his decision to downsize
  • At other employees who accepted the change: In our case study, the employees who were retained on the payroll would have been the target of the anger of those laid off
  • At the situation that forced the change: In our example, this could be the decision of the merger or the Oil Crisis and the industry itself

Whatever the target of the anger is, it is best if there is an outburst. 

You can then understand where people are in the change curve, but also listen to their frustrations, as you lead them through it 

Closing them off and shunning them because they are being negative will only restrict the effectiveness of them transitioning through the change curve, thus making the pain considerably longer. 

It can also result in negativity and lead people to attempt to sabotage the process of change as it is being implemented.

What should you do?

Like in the first stage, the main matra is patience and communication.

Quick tips to manage Anger:

  1. Look out for signs of brewing anger – Acknowledge that they are one step further in accepting change!
  1. Identify the one with the most violent reactions and deal with them promptly – we can be frustrated but don’t tolerate aggression
  1. Keep communication channels open at all times – listen to their frustrations and continue to note down their frustrations and countermeasures to overcome these
  1. Patiently hear out your employees as they vent their anger 
  1. Focus on the root causes of the anger and not on its manifestation – Be mindful that this is a natural process, so don’t take it personal

The phase of anger is often followed by a phase of frustration, characterised by low morale among the employees. They feel demotivated when they realize that their outburst of anger has been to no avail. They start resigning to their fate.

Stage 3: Compromise – Can We Meet This Change in the Middle?

Once the stage of Anger has passed, the seeds of acceptance start taking root. 

In the compromise phase, the employees try to bargain the best deal for themselves. 

The employees try to minimize the extent to which the change is implemented, thereby minimising the disruptive effect on them. This stage sees a fall in emotional outbursts and rather a phase of cold headed negotiations.

During the restructuring of British Airways, there would have been a bargaining about the number of employees to be laid off or the number of cost cuts to be implemented, along with how change actually looks, among others.

Many change projects fail at this stage due to management caving in to the bargaining of the employees and the process not being effectively facilitated.

What should you do?

As a leader, this is the time when you should stand firmly by your decision while at the same time extending emotional support to the employees.

Quick tips to manage Compromise:

  1. Patiently listen to the demands of the employees
  1. Stand firmly by your decision for change
  1. Consider some concessions and ideas for compromises. After all, we are progressing through our change curve.
  2. Consider things that you might make in favour of the employees, which does not reduce the impact of the change you are aiming at.
  3. Extend emotional support to the employees in the form of training and coaching

The best way to navigate through the bargaining phase is to give a consistent picture of what you aim to achieve by implementing the changes, focussing on how it is going to benefit the employees and helping them work it through together.

Stage 4: Depression – I can’t Get Over This Change

Following the compromise stage, some people may move into depression or despair. They simply can’t come to terms with the change. This is a critical stage. If left unattended, they can become extremely bitter and may actively work against the programme, influencing others around them.

On a personal perspective, if employees drop into this ‘loop’, they need to be helped as much as they can – they are struggling and need more support than most. 

Some may decide that the current and new way of working is not for them, and opt to leave. 

Either way, this is a crisis and a lot of time needs to go into those stuck in the depression stage.

Coupled with this is an uptick in the feelings of emotional hostility towards management and those initiating the change. You’ll often see it manifesting in the change being blamed for any issue that the employees may see. 

Such occurrences may have a tendency to push the people back into the bargaining stage, too.

What should you do?

At this stage, the employees require active guidance on your part. You should try and provide avenues for them to talk and discuss their issues and feelings. Also solicit their participation to suggest ways to improve and identify solutions.

Quick tips to manage Depression:

  1. Engage the employees in brainstorming sessions to overcome issues
  1. Talk to them about the issues they are facing and agree actions to implement that will help resolve or reduce these problems
  1. Try to solve the other issues without jeopardising the process of implementation of the change – it’s still got to happen!

Your main aim should be to reduce the friction in employee behaviour and make sure that their activities do not restrict productivity and the success of what needs to be implemented.

Stage 5: Acceptance – I get It and Accept Change

This is the final phase in the change curve. At this stage, there is a growing acceptance for the change among the employees. Productivity and morale increases. And the new change is taking shape.

This is the time when the change becomes institutionalised and the emotional curve of the employees stabilises.

What should you do?

The phase of acceptance is the time for positive reinforcements. This can be in the form of incentives and rewards and celebrating successes, publicly.

This is also the time to look forward and think of ways in which the change can be capitalised for further growth of the organisation. 

In the case of BA, this would have happened once the employees accepted the restructuring exercise and the airline returned to profits.

Quick tips to celebrate Acceptance:

  1. Involve the employees in brainstorming sessions about future prospects of the organisation. They’ve come so far. Why not keep momentum
  1. Publicise the positive effects of the change as and when it comes
  1. Create a positive outlook towards change among the employees, so that there is possibly lesser resistance in future
  2. Reward people for their efforts and celebrate the wins

Beyond acceptance is the phase of Moving on. Here, the change becomes a part of the norms of the organisation. The employees grow used to it and the culture is shifting to the new way. 

The employees move on with their regular work, while management moves on to other projects, until the entire cycle starts all over again with the declaration of another change project!

Conclusion

The Change Curve model of Kubler Ross is not perfect, as human emotions are not homogeneous. However, it’s a great tool to use as a yardstick to help you see where individuals are in their respective change curves. How we transition between stages depends on our individual pace of change. Some will adopt things faster than others. 

Use it to help coach and mentor people through change and reduce their time spent in flux.