Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ work on change is a bit different, because her model isn’t one of driving organizations through change but rather how humans adapt to loss.  Despite the tangential nature to change, it’s an important foundation for anyone who is trying to accomplish change in their organization and serves as the foundation of William Bridges’ Transition Model.

The Ultimate Loss

Kübler-Ross’ work was focused on those facing their imminent mortality, whether that was their own death or the death of a loved one.  These profound losses were very disruptive to a person’s psyche and caused them, she believed, to go through a set of stages in their grief.  These stages of grief are her model.

While the kinds of changes that we’re speaking of in most change projects don’t involve death (though they sometimes involve the prevention of death or injury), people experience loss with any change, whether that loss is simply a loss of routine or something more profound.  The loss they experience causes the same kinds of ripples to the psyche as those associated with death.

Shock

The first stage of grief is shock.  In this stage, there’s a complete disbelief, confusion, or disorientation.  In change projects, this is the point where the organization hears that a change is necessary and why.  Previously, the change has often not been a subject of thought.

Denial

In grief, denial is the denial of the diagnosis leading to death.  In change, it may be that the change will never get off the ground, or that it’s the latest fad and will never be implemented in the person’s part of the organization.  Denial can be particularly persistent and sometimes becomes the genesis of resistance to the change.  If the change isn’t happening or the reasons for the change aren’t real, then the individual doesn’t need to change their behavior.

Anger

In the anger stage of grief, the individual is angry at the diagnosis or event.  Typically, this is seen as a person being angry at their spouse for dying.  This is, obviously, not rational when they had no hand in their own death, but anger is a frequent emotion nonetheless.  In change, anger is often focused at the need for change or the sponsor of the change.

Bargaining

In a diagnosis that will lead to death, this is often pleading with God, or whatever deity they believe in, to spare their loved one or themselves.  In change, this is often an attempt to negotiate a smaller change than is being asked of the person.

Depression

Though depression officially requires a negative view for more than two weeks, depression here is just a period of negative view of the world that emanates from the loss.  In change, this is often seen as disengagement not just with the change but with the job more broadly.

Acceptance

In acceptance, the person slowly reorganizes their view of the world to include the new truth.  In change, we see this as folks trying the change and adapting to the new behaviors.  Acceptance is a long road with a gradient from not at all accepting to very accepting of the changes.

Completion

The completion is the final full acceptance of the loss or change.  Completion, like the Termination stage in stages of change may be less of a real stage and more of a desire to reach full completion.

Timing and Criticisms

There are criticisms for Kübler-Ross’ model, which fall into two basic categories.  The first category is that the model isn’t research based.  This criticism is largely leveled at the model by people who would appreciate the rigor of a clinical study but doing so is incredibly difficult.

The second criticism for the model is that not everyone goes through these stages or they’re not linear.  It’s helpful here to think that this model may need to cycle, and some of the stages may happen in a millisecond and be done.  For some, they move past shock quickly.  Others may not seem to stop in denial at all.  However, considering that Kübler-Ross didn’t define a time limit for how much time a person must spend in each phase, it becomes possible to realize that they may be going through the stage, just very quickly.

Resources