Please note I will use the term manager to cover team leaders, managers, directors, executives, senior executives and C-level executives.
In the 1960s Elizabeth Kubler Ross did some work around grief and loss. Her framework has been adapted for use in organisational change contexts by a number of theorists. The stages are not linear; every person goes through the behavioural stages differently based on their previous experience of change, their current state of change (what else they have on in their lives) and their own resilience levels. The emotional responses to change typically include:
Early interest: Change is announced, there is early interest neither positive or negative but an interest to understand more.
Shock: The change detail is out, the shift is noted, it’s a shock that the current reality will change so dramatically and there is difficulty in believing what is happening. Some staff might act as if nothing is happening, others might have irrational fears. Information at this point needs to be consistent and the strategy is to try to engage people in the discussion about the change and their behaviour.
Denial: Fear leads to staff members seeking solace in the past, ‘oh it’s not going to affect me, often statements are made that suggest they are focusing on the old ways and the old ways were great so there will be no force to change’. The manager needs to assist staff to develop a fact base, separating what is fact from reality.
Anger: Often change will be resisted and opposed, anger can be both passive or active, physical responses may occur in some contexts. Staff may try to sabotage the change effort and possibly ‘shoot the messenger’, which is more often than not you, the manager. The important factor here is to distinguish between what is a legitimate emotion from inappropriate behaviour. Anger is probably legitimate to the person but the manager’s role is to move them through anger to passively accepting the situation.
Bargaining: This stage is where we often see staff trying to ‘cut a deal’ and to redirect the attention away from the change to other business priorities. A manager here needs to reinforce positive actions the staff members can take and provide detailed information about the what, why and how, the rules of the game that cannot be broken.
Adapting and testing: An exploration of the new context and a willingness to make future plans. There is often a likelihood of anxiety or insecurity and a desire to know more prior to taking action. Managers can support this exploration and enthusiasm, clarifying areas that may not be clear and support the formation of new relationships.
Acceptance: The change has occurred, the new team or role is accepted by the staff member (even if the change is an exit from the organisation and this comes in the future when they have time to reflect on what has occurred and what the benefits are). For team members that have changed and stay within the organisational context it is important for managers to encourage honest and open feedback in relation to all aspects of their work.