Emotions During Organizational Change: the Change Curve

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Aniket Deolikar
Consultant, India

Emotions During Organizational Change: the Change Curve

Swiss-American psychiatrist Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying" described 5 stages of grief to describe the process patients with terminal illness go through as they (hopefully) come to terms with their own deaths; it was later applied to grieving friends and family as well, who seemed to undergo a similar process. Although commonly referenced in popular media and certainly useful in practice, the existence and exact order of these precise stages has not been empirically demonstrated. The stages, popularly known by the acronym DABDA are:
  1. DENIAL – In this stage, individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.
  2. ANGER – When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"; "Why would this happen?".
  3. BARGAINING – This involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise. Examples include the terminally ill person who "negotiates with God" to attend a daughter's wedding, an attempt to bargain for more time to live in exchange for a reformed lifestyle or a phrase such as "If I could trade their life for mine".
  4. DEPRESSION – In this stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen."I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "I'm going to die soon, so what's the point?"; "I miss my loved one; why go on?"
  5. ACCEPTANCE – In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions."It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it; I may as well prepare for it."
After Kübler-Ross, one can also model the emotions people go through when in an organizational change process in approximate stages. Change may be an important part of life and of organizations and if an organizational change is managed well, it can bring in very productive results, but it can be hard at times for people to accept necessary change and incorporate them in an organization. We can group these emotions into 3 main transitional stages, resulting in following "Change Curve":

The three stages of the change curve are as follows:
  • Stage 1: Shock and Denial
    The first reaction to change is usually shock. This initial shock, while frequently short lived, can result in a temporary slow down and 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
    • 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's likely to be a feeling that as everything was OK as it was, why does there need to be a change? Common feelings include:
    • Being comfortable with the status quo
    • Feeling threatened
    • Fear of failure

    Individuals who have not previously experienced major change can be particularly affected by this first stage. It is common for people to convince themselves that the change isn't actually going to happen, or if it does, that it won't affect them. Performance often returns to the levels seen before the dip experienced during the initial shock of the change. People carry on as they always have and may deny having received communication about the changes, and may well make excuses to avoid taking part in forward planning.

    What can a manager do in this phase?
    At 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. It is important for a manager to tell the team members about how the demands at the workplace are changing. You have to assure them that the effect of this is not that devastating. Let the team members know about the things which haven't changed. You have to help them to move from the fear mindset which they are having currently and motivate them to work. To do this, have one-on-one meetings and talk about how the new situation also has good opportunities.

  • 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. Focussing the blame on someone or something allows a continuation of the denial by providing another focus for the fears and anxieties the potential impact is causing. Common feelings include:
    • Suspicion
    • Scepticism
    • Frustration

    The lowest point of the curve comes when the anger begins to wear off and the realisation that the change is genuine hits. It is common for morale to be low, and for self-doubt and anxiety levels to peak. Feelings during this stage can be hard to express, and depression is possible as the impact of what has been lost is acknowledged. This period can be associated with:
    • Apathy
    • Isolation
    • Remoteness

    What can a manager do in this phase?
    At this point performance is at its lowest. There is a tendency to fixate on small issues or problems, often to the detriment of day to day tasks. Individuals may continue to perform tasks in the same way as before, even if this is no longer appropriate behaviour. If you see the team members showing resistance, do not suppose they are unwilling to adapt, they might just not know what to do. Suggest them small steps to complete the work. You can make them adapt in steps. You have to be empathetic with them and meet the team members on a regular basis via a casual call which will make them more confident during these times. You can even try to share your personal experience on how you are coping up with the change yourself.

    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
    • 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
    • Trust

    What can a manager do in this phase?
    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 curious about possibilities and opportunities. Normal topics of conversation resume, and a wry humour is often used when referring to behaviour earlier in the process. As a manager, you should respond to the questions of the team members. You should ask them what opportunities they are exploring and how can you help them in completing those goals. Be open to new ideas and plan on implementing those. Conduct some brainstorming sessions on what new ideas can be implemented during this change which will be beneficial for all. You should question yourself about how can you add more value to the team? how can you upskill the team members? You should follow a more personalized approach. Suppose someone from the team wants to learn data analytics, then you should help them. You may have to rethink the goals which are in your mind for your team. Try to reward them for good work and try to acknowledge it by a personalized email or over a call which will boost their energy and motivate them.

    Individuals will respond well to being given specific tasks or responsibilities, however communication remains key. Regular progress reports and praise help to cement the more buoyant mood. It is not uncommon for there to be a return to an earlier stage if the level of support suddenly drops.
The change curve can be a useful tool when it comes to managing a large change at organizational levels. Knowing where an individual is on the curve will help when deciding on how and when to communicate information, what level of support someone requires, and when best to implement final changes. The understanding that people's emotions go through various approximate stages can help them and their managers to better handle their emotions during the change process.

Be careful not to mix up the Change Curve with Kotler's Change Phases which is another lens to look at stages of an organizational change process.
"The Change Curve", University of Exeter.
Karen Walker, "How to help your team adapt to change during a crisis?", HBR Ascend, June 2020

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