What is the Change Curve?
The Change Curve is a popular and powerful model used to understand the personal transition and organizational change stages. It helps you predict how people will react to change, so ease them in their transitions and ensure they have the help and support.
Personality influences how people will respond to change. So, understanding the differences in personalities allows leaders, managers, and coaches to predict how different personality types are likely to respond to a situation or change and then deploy the correct leadership or coaching style to smooth the transition from resistance to acceptance.
This approach works equally well for individuals, teams, and organizations.
The Change Curve is widely used in change management. There are many variations and modifications. It is often believed to be the work of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and attributed to her research about personal transitions during grieving and bereavement.
In this case, we’re talking about major changes that can be difficult for those experiencing them. If you notice that the changes are less dramatic, adjust the method accordingly.
Here’s the scenario:
You have invested vast amounts of time and money in developing the latest systems and processes; you have trained everyone and made their lives so much easier (or so you think). Yet months later, people persist in their old ways.
Where are the business improvements you expected? And when will the disruption you’re experiencing subside?
The fact is that organizations don’t just change because of new systems, processes, or new organizational structures. They change because the people within the organization adapt and change too. Only when the people within it have made their transitions can an organization truly reap the benefits of change.
5 Stages of Kubler Ross’ Change Curve Model
Below are the five phases of emotional reactions that are natural, as that are highlighted in Kubler Ross’ Change Curve Model:
The initial phase is denial or shock, and the individual tries to use the defense mechanisms that attempt to block the reality of the shift. The result is a dramatic reduction in employees’ productivity at the first stage because it is normal to hold on to the past or personal expectations, which can lead to an unease with the reality.
Once the reality of the change is absorbed, it’s expressed by anxiety or anger. Change initiatives have the potential to spiral out of control at this phase, leading to massive failures to change.
When a person reaches the point of anger on changing curves, they try to get back on track by exploring the avenue of least resistance. They might seek to negotiate and reach an agreement.
In the stage of depression, one loses hope completely. Conclusion: there are symptoms of sadness that are extreme and regret and demotivation.
In the final phase of the change curve, people come to terms with the changes. The fear of change is lessened as they accept the new situation and begin to look for opportunities that could be due to the changes. After employees have accepted the change, it is important to integrate it into the organizational culture to prevent returning to the old ways of doing things.
As someone managing the change, you’ll finally start to see the benefits you worked so hard for.
Your team or organization becomes productive and efficient, and the positive effects of change become apparent.
While you are busy counting the benefits, don’t forget to celebrate the success! The journey may have been rocky, and it will have certainly been at least a little uncomfortable for some people involved.
Everyone deserves to share the success. What’s more, by celebrating the achievement, you establish a track record of success, which will make things easier the next time change is needed.
How to move your people through the Change Curve
The Change Curve shows a positive move towards change where acceptance is the outcome. However, unless your organization and leaders actively help move your people through the various stages of the curve, individuals may become stuck at any stage, thereby making change more difficult (if not impossible).
So how do you help guide them through a change positively and effectively?
Everyone has different preferences regarding how they like to be communicated with and how they process information. Therefore, understanding the different personality types within your team and the human side of change can have a massive impact on how you can support them through the change process.
If you find that an individual is stuck in one of the first three stages of the curve, consider if they:
- Have been given all the information they would need to accept the change and see it as necessary and positive for themselves, their team, or the organization.
- Know that the inherent risks of change have been considered and that it is worth changing the status quo, which they may feel more comfortable with.
- Have had adequate time to accept the change. People may need more time but will move through to acceptance steadily.
If you find that an individual gets through all the stages quickly but then reverts to depression, consider if they:
Like change and are future-oriented, but are so excited by the idea that they’ve skipped the attention to detail and understanding of the benefits of change. This might mean you support them in getting through the stages quickly at first, but know that once the depression sets back in, you may need to follow up again with information and coaching that has already been offered for the change to hold long-term.
If you find that an individual is stuck at Denial and Anger stages and is doing so vocally, consider:
They were the ones to instigate the change. If they weren’t, they might feel that change is being imposed upon them as a done deal without consultation.
If they weren’t involved in the change planning, ask them to provide feedback to gain their buy-in and support.
You may find yourself with some great new ideas!
Coaching individuals through the Change Curve:
Change Curve Stages 1 and 2 – Denial and Anger
This is easy to spot. The style to use here is to listen, don’t be tempted to jump in and fix it, don’t offer solutions, and don’t agree with them. Just listen.
Watch as they move to Stage 2, where again, you listen. This can take some time, but you need to let them vent. Patience is often the key here!
Change Curve Stage 3 – Bargaining
Again this is easy to spot. You’ll probably hear sentiments like: “What am I supposed to do with my work?”, “Perhaps I should look elsewhere,” or “Are there any additional gains or perks.” The style here is to start giving pointers, start directing them and give some context around the way things will look.
It is now your role to ‘sell’ the benefits of the change processes, people, future, and business value.
Change Curve Stage 4 & 5 Depression Acceptance
Here things begin to get easier. This is a good time to get your team to start brainstorming ideas and solutions and let them know you are supporting them. Watch for individuals who may slip into depression as they realize they aren’t fully sure of what’s just happened.
You can add two more stages to reaffirm the acceptance of the change.
Now they have taken ownership of the change. They stop focusing on what they have lost and start letting go and accepting the changes. They begin testing and exploring what the changes mean and learn how they must adapt. This is where you stabilize the change by solving their problems.
Here the golden question to ask is ‘what have you learned about yourself and the process you have gone through?’ At this stage, they not only accept the changes but also start to embrace them and begin to rebuild their ways of working. You should now see some benefits coming through from the change.
Leadership During Change Process
Leading change with teams and organizations
When leading change, the same techniques apply to teams and organizations:
Stage 1, 2, and 3: Listen to your people one on one, let them vent, don’t react, and keep calm. Don’t give them a platform to get into a ‘group think’ (i.e., consider whether or not to launch the change at a meeting). Instead, write to everyone explaining what’s happening, the business rationale behind the change, and the benefits. Invite people to come and see you or their line manager. Show them the details.
Stages 4 and 5: Arrange change workshops to work out or show the processes involved and the exact detail of roles. Brainstorm ideas to get engagement.
Now stabilize and capture learning. Start to look for the benefits of the change.
As someone needing to make changes within your organization, the challenge is to get the systems, processes, and structures right and help and support people through these individual transitions, which can sometimes be intensely traumatic and involve loss of power and prestige. The easier you can make this journey for people, the sooner your organization will benefit, and the more likely you will be successful.