Photo of rollercoaster to represent managing change

Managing the emotional side of change

Meysam Poorkavoos 11th February 2021

One thing that we all have experienced during this pandemic is change. From changes to our personal lives to our work lives and to some extent the way our society functions. Many of us have experienced a significant change in our jobs and had to adapt to new ways of doing our work, being socially distanced or working completely virtual.

There are two aspects to any change the external event or the change itself (a new business strategy, a turn of leadership, a merger or a new product) and the transition. Transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalise and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about. One of the many roles of OD practitioners in change is to help managers to support their people as they go through change and one of the ‘go to models’ for many of them is Kubler-Ross’s change curve or grief curve.

The model was originally designed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross based on her observation of those who were terminally ill.  The model describes the internal emotional journey that individuals typically experience when dealing with change and transition.  This journey consists of a number of stages that people go through: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, it has been used widely in the field of change management, OD and anyone who deals with change within organisation to help managers better understand the emotional journey of their staff and how they can support them.

One of the problems with this model is that it only assumes people will have a negative experience when they go through change and they go through a performance dip because of that. Most people who have been part of a change will know that different people will experience change differently. For many it could be negative for various reasons such as job loss, loss of control, uncertainty about future and for many it could be positive such as creating new opportunity for progress, learning new skills or being able to work on a new project.

So, what can we do about it?

I think the grief curve is still a useful model to keep in the back of our mind when we are dealing with change and designing interventions to support people through change. However, it is important not to assume that everyone is experiencing negative emotions. One of the good practices when it comes to managing the emotional side of change is to create space for people to voice their concerns and why they may not be supporting the change and what we can do about it to support them.

But in these forums, we need to create a safe space for those who may not be feeling that way or feel positive about the change or even support it. It is important to help to voice their opinion as well and provide opportunities for dialogue between these two groups.

Change will only be successful if leaders and organisations address the transition that people experience during change both positive and negative. Acknowledging the positive emotions is as important as the negative and can create great opportunities for creating change champions and helping individuals understand how they can positively contribute to the change and the importance of their role in the organisation.