Why would we view change as grief? It’s easy to regard grief as limited: the powerful, painful emotions you may experience with the loss of a loved one. In other words, on a raw, personal level – and this much is at the very least, definitely true.

It’s a fact that no one lives forever. And, that those we care about may not make it through illness, or could be taken suddenly and shockingly from us. On the other hand, they may live a long, illness-free life with a gentle, peaceful world exit in their sleep.

Grief is a universal emotion. None of us will escape it.

Working with Grief – At Work

Yet, grief can happen in other ways, not least within a working environment when change is on the horizon. Whilst you may see your organisation in purely functional or intellectual terms, my experience in organisational development and leadership coaching tells me otherwise.

In fact, substantially so.

In this article, I’ll explain the principles underlying change as grief and the different types of grief that, as a leader, I believe you should know about. Also, I’ll define the different phases of grief, and what these are. In my view, this “Grief Curve” (also called a “Change Curve”), developed in the 1960s by the renowned psychologist  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and expounded by McKinsey (in “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief”) needs to be in your leadership essentials toolkit.

The important thing to remember is:

Viewing the reactions of others through this grief curve prism could help you gain a crystal-clear understanding of the emotions you’re dealing with regarding change.

Transition Equals Grief

Whilst “standard” grief may be a response to the here and now, we are not entirely made up of the present. We also feel strong emotions – both positive and negative – about what we imagine to be our future.

Picture how your team feels.

For your employees, the impact of change involves the sometimes-devastating loss of an imagined outlook that will now never happen. And, it’s a loss that can be as real and as sad as an actual, tangible bereavement. Therefore, to achieve a successful change in the workplace, you will need to pay close attention to how you support the individuals involved in organisational change.

Let’s turn to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Grief Curve.

Here, she documents seven stages of grief. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re talking about human beings’ emotions here, so the process outlined below is not linear. People don’t necessarily move from one stage to another; indeed, some may not even experience a particular part at all – or could move backwards and forwards from one to another.

  • Shock. In this early period, an individual or a team may be taken aback by the “bad news”. There could be a general feeling of discomfort.
  • Denial. Here, people are telling themselves that it won’t happen – and the reasons why.
  • Anger. Frustration and anger get in the way of productivity, as your teams start to feel that they’re being set up to fail.
  • Bargaining. An individual or team may change, delay or take on board a more comfortable alternative of the change in question.
  • Depression. Engagement, enthusiasm and productivity are at a low point, as motivation drops off a cliff.y rates continue to descend.
  • Acceptance. A more positive stage, as change starts to be implemented and your team moves towards an understanding of its benefits.
  • Integration. Motivation, enthusiasm and energy are restored. The change has been accepted – and all is well.

As you can imagine, individuals and team will require a different level of support in each phase in order to help them transition.

Grief Takes Many Forms

As referenced, McKinsey’s “Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief” informs our approach. Not least when it relates to organisational change as grief, loss and grief can mean several things:

  • Loss of attachment: the need to feel connected and secure. Part of the “bigger picture”, even.
  • Loss of territory: the feeling of belonging, or of being firmly grounded somewhere.
  • Loss of structure: knowing and feeling that you’re valued and important.
  • Loss of identity: what I stand for, what my values are. Who am I within an organisation.
  • Loss of future: what’s my direction of travel? What will be job look like in a year’s time? What I have now is going to disappear.
  • Loss of meaning: I need meaning and purpose.
  • Loss of control: I have no control of my working environment.

As a leader, allowing your employees to feel and express these emotional stages is crucial. Why? Because it’s no exaggeration to say that through meeting their psychological needs you’re proving that you relate to them as fully formed human beings. Remember, organisations are made up of people, not processes.

Allowing your team members to feel their loss, and to express their emotions is a strong way to support what they may be experiencing. In effect, they’re naming what has been lost, because all of it matters a great dea;.

The grief that comes with change is far from predictable. It can take us by surprise and strike us when we are at our most vulnerable. My experience tells me that leaders who fail to understand the illogical nature of change will miss most of what’s going on. In fact, approximately two thirds will simply go under the radar. And you don’t want to be one of those people, do you?

After loss, there IS a new beginning. It’s up to you to make sure that you’re a part of it. And, that your team are with you all the way.

For more of my posts on change – click here.

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