Managing Change – The Change Curve

By Aaron Lim, Group HR Director, Park Hotel Group

Seen this cartoon? It’s true! Everyone wants to see change, but to embrace and follow through it can be a tough process. Unfortunately, for some, they never got out of it. Coming from my Human Resource (HR) lens, this article aims to help you be aware of where you are now (if you’re dealing with any form of change), and hopefully accelerate your change management success as you are going through them.

The change curve is a model introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Kubler-Ross back in 1969 (yes, it’s been 50 years!). The model was first introduced in her book “On Death And Dying”, and was inspired by her work with terminally ill observed as a human response to learning about terminal illness. They have also been used to understand our individual responses to all kinds of change.

Today, her five-stage model is still very relevant to how we deal with change management. The five stages are: 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression, and 5) Acceptance.

The Change Curve

The change curve diagram above (credits to https://expertprogrammanagement.com) gives a a quick overview of the model and conveys levels of emotions experienced by people as they deal with change. Over the years, a few more steps were added to give a more detailed curve. Now, we can assume that the process of change begins with “Shock”, then “Denial” as an initial response, and that it should conclude with “Acceptance”, including “Integration” as we move forward. Moving between the stages is expected as we deal with the transitions. Introducing the new seven stages of change:

1) Shock (New);
2) Denial;
3) Frustration (or Anger);
4) Depression;
5) Experiment (similar to negotiation);
6) Decision and;
7) Integration

where stages 6 and 7 can be combined to become “Acceptance”. In short, SAFDEDI (only if it makes any sense to you).

When going through changes – reactions and emotions are normal. They are NOT signs of weakness or that they are falling apart.

The change curve is valuable as it not only allows us to identify the current stage we are in, but also help relate the stages with past experiences of change. Here’s an interactive diagram for those who are more visual (credits to www.davidtaylorsblog.com):

So how can we apply the model to our lives? Below is my attempt to put in perspective both on a macro (organisational wide), and micro (individual) level below.

ANALYSE – MACRO LEVEL (managing teams and organisations)

In a business context, the seven stages can be illustrated as follows:

  1. Shock: The initial shock on learning an announcement.
  2. Denial: That the change will not directly impact or be relevant to them at work.
  3. Frustration: “NO! I am not going to allow this to affect me.”
  4. Depression: Everything they do seems pointless, faltering any hope to prevent change.
  5. Experimentation: They start to consider that the change is going to happen and there is nothing they can do about it. They might not have control of the situation after all. They begin to try things out and negotiate scenarios and weigh the pros and cons.
  6. Decisions: They come to terms with the change event and start to feel more motivated about the future by considering alternatives they can make to improve the situation.
  7. Integration: What was once unacceptable is now starting to be a new norm.

APPLY – MACRO LEVEL (managing teams and organisations)

Stage 1, 2 and 3 – Listen: Listen to your people while they voice their concerns. Do not react and keep calm. Communicate well through writing, explaining what are the changes, expectations and the why – business reasons behind the changes and the benefits. Prior to that, brief their line managers well as it is crucial to invite employees to speak all business leaders to clarify their doubts. When they are clear of a single message, it maintains their confidence with the leadership teams in your organisation.

Stage 4 and 5 – Communicate: Arrange workshops to detail the changes involved, and the exact impact to their roles. Get employees involved by getting them to brainstorm ideas to give them ownership in the change process. For such workshops, it is important to help employees identify which stage of the change process they are at, and address how to get to the stage of acceptance by guiding them through the potential challenges they might anticipate.

Stage 6 and 7 – Support: Support employees by further stabilising and enhancing their learnings, constantly checking in for feedback for any adjustments needed to follow through.

ANALYSE – MICRO LEVEL (individuals, including yourself)

Alongside each stage, you can see the thoughts associated with that stage.

  1. Shock: “Are you serious?”
  2. Denial: “Nah, this can’t be happening to me”
  3. Frustration: “Why me? This is not fair. It’s not my fault at all!”
  4. Depression: “I’m not going to come out of this. I am just nothing else but a burden.”
  5. Experimentation: “Just let me survive long enough to get my bonus.”
  6. Acceptance: “I have nothing to lose if I try, here are the options worth a shot.”

APPLY – MICRO LEVEL (individuals, including yourself)

Stages 1 and 2 – Avoid the blaming game: Listen and be level-headed enough to be self aware of your own state… use the change curve and do a simple diagnosis of your current state and where you should be. However, don’t be too tempted to fix it too quickly without listening enough. Observe as you move to Stage 2, where again, you listen before you find a solution to move forward. Patience is key here.

Stage 3 – Clear the confusion. Your inner voice might confuse you with things like “What am I supposed to do?”, or “I cannot do this anymore, I should resign”. Many individuals don’t make it beyond this stage if patience gives way. The tip here is really nothing else but resilience and patience. Begin directing your thoughts and give them context about the painful things that may be created if you do something drastic. The pursuit of pleasure (by giving up on pressure and work stress for example) drives the everyday decisions that direct people’s lives, but remember this:

The grass is always greener on the other side, but decisions made with emotions are almost ALWAYS bad decisions.

Stage 4 – Internalise acceptance: Beyond this stage, things get a lot easier. Naturally, you start to consider solutions, and create ideas to support them.

Stage 5 – Trial and adaptation: Once you form plans, your emotions improve and you begin to take ownership and accountability for the change. From here, you will stop focusing on what you may have lost, and start accept the changes. Experimenting what the changes mean is where you stabilise the change with appropriate adaptation styles of your own.

Stage 6 and 7 – Move On: Here you recall and ask lessons learned through the experience you’ve just gone through and how you would have done things differently if you encountered the same scenarios again. At this stage, you embrace and appreciate the changes that made you stronger during the process.

So much about how to analyse and apply the change curve, below is my favourite change curve (credits to J M Fisher). Fisher included an additional layer on “Disillusionment”, where he integrated the “Fight or Flight” human mechanism when we sense danger. Who says we need to follow through the entire curve each time? While using the change curve, we should also be self aware of the signs when we need to plan our exit. This stage is exactly when employees leave without a job. Familiar?

Regardless if you decide to follow through or exit from a particular change, it will be very helpful to focus on how we improve on the impact of stage 4 – Depression. In other words, it means coming back stronger with each experience with the aim to accelerate their acceptance to move on. To illustrate, below is a curve that I will encourage everyone to strive for.

OVERALL

The Kubler-Ross change curve model is very useful to identify and understand how other people are dealing with change. People immediately get a better sense of their reactions and why colleagues are behaving in a particular way. Personally, I’ve gone through the curve multiple times as I reflect upon this writing – in my working and personal life, you name it we have it.

The only concern I have is becoming stuck in any one of the stages. “Frustration” and “Depression” are two of the stages where people can easily get stuck. If you are able to handle changes yourself, I’m so proud of you! But when this happens to someone else, pay attention to what is happening around them and help them move on. If you (or anyone else) is critically trapped in one of these stages for a prolonged period, consider speaking to someone or with a professional.

Change is the only constant, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

YOU GOT THIS!


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