Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Change Model 2: The Grief Cycle


The most common myth about change is that we resist it, but this is a misunderstanding of change. Change is an event. Change is a point in time when something old stops and something new begins. What people resist is not the change itself, but the impacts of change. (Lucy Garrick).

Change can be chosen, emergent, or imposed. This model is about imposed change, or, more specifically, about the emotional response of people to change. In essence, the model suggests that people go through several phases of a process when change is imposed. Change leaders need to acknowledge and recognize these stages and offer support that corresponds with the specific need people have in a respective phase of the grief cycle.

Originally, the model was developed by Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross (see below) in order to describe the phases which terminally ill people undergo after they have learned that they are going to die. "We can clearly observe similar reactions to those explained by Kübler-Ross's grief model in people confronted with far less serious traumas than death and bereavement, such as by work redundancy, enforced relocation, crime and punishment, disability and injury, relationship break-up, financial despair and bankruptcy, etc.," (from: Buinessballs), and in particular in processes of inforced change.

Leaders of change processes need to recognize each of the stages in order to implement the appropriate interventions. For example, when people are in anger stage, they won't be very susceptible for communication that tries to sell them the benefits of the change. The model calls for respecting emotions of people and responding to them rather then impleme

Elisabeth Kübler-RossImage via Wikipedia

nting a just rational, inflexible change programme.

Creators of the Model:

Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross: on Death and Dying (1969). The model has found its way into management and organizational dynamics but I have no idea who to give the credit for. Do you know who was the first person who applied for change processes in organizations?

Phases of the Change Process (adapted from Wikipedia):

1) Shock: Shock is a first reaction to a change projected that is announced to people. Sometimes this is not the initial reaction to an announced change but the entire cycle only starts when people realize what the change means to them personally. Example - "My God!"; ""What?"

2) Denial: Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. Example - "I feel fine."; "This can't be happening, not to me."

3) Anger: Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Example - "Why me? It's not fair!"; "How can this happen to me?"; "Who is to blame?"

4) Bargaining: The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone, delay or neutralize the change, or to get an adequate compensation. Example - "What's in it for me?"; "What does that mean for my future?"; "What can I do?"

5) Depression: During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of change. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse dialogue and spend much among peers who feel the same. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed. Example - "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"; "What's the point?"; "They are doing this to us, whether we want or not."

6) Acceptance: This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the change that is approaching.People buy-in and start to become pro-active gain. Example - "It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it."

Does the Model Relate to Complexity Theory?

No. The model is a linear one, describing the behavior of individuals on a clearly defined path. However, the cycle of grief can enrich a systemic model of change that tries to explain what actually happens in organizations. So, like a weather model can explain why a thunderstorm happens, Kuebler-Ross' cycle can explain why people do not cooperate in certain stages of the change, particularly when combined with a human needs model such as the one of Manfred Max-Neef that I favor.


The model comes in handy as a roadmap for leaders who want to understand their people. It gives suggestions on when to give emotionally support, when to decrease the speed of change and when to accelerate.

  • The model helps leaders to put their focus on the individuals. It is individuals who can make or break the change.
  • It shows clearly that communication and involvement needs vary according to the phase of the change project. It gives lots of room for flexibility to chose the appropriate intervention.
  • It is a model that has been transferred from terminally ill people. The decisive difference to change management situations is that terminal ill people cannot escape while people in change processes might indeed have other options.
  • The model only focuses on the negative aspects of change. We know from scoial constructionism (as applied in Appreciative Inquiry) that those things on which we focus get stronger.
  • The model which was originally not meant to be applied for change processes does not take into account the wider environment and external change drivers.



  1. This model seems very familiar - many managers "change model" is simply to make the change "this is what we are doing" and then deal with grief.

    Indeed - you even hear about the grief a change causes people.

    This is a model to be avoided but there are circumstances I guess extreme circumstances where it might apply - perhaps unexpected unavoidable events that necessitate a fast response where consultation just isn't possible.

    However, in most circumstances (even extreme ones) work can be carried out before the change notice.

    I'm saying that grief is mostly avoidable by preparatory work - a penny or minute spent early can save pounds and days later - just get the balance right - don't forget that projects have to start BUT involvement is crucial.

  2. One point I disagree with is the model being linear. Kubler-Ross did further work on the model and found that people move between the stages quite fluidly. Therefore, an employee might reach acceptance one day and the next bounce back to bargaining or depression. This is why acceptance of a forced change can take much longer than it first appears.

  3. Hi Holger!

    I agree with Maria that the model isn't experienced linearly. It's possible to flip back and forth between phases.

    I believe that we go through all these phases every time we grieve; for the small stuff it takes seconds, for the big stuff it can take months or even years. This is a huge challenge in change projects, since small and big are subjective quantities.

    In my experience, simply knowing about the model helps people to process their grief more quickly and with less stress. ("Hey, it's normal to be mad as hell! I'm not going nuts!!")

    For the past five years I've been using a variant of the model that I picked up from Birgitt Williams in the Genuine Contact Program. The phases go like this (presented as a cycle or circle):
    1. Event
    2. Shock
    3. Anger
    4. Denial
    5. Memories
    6. Acceptance
    7. Letting Go
    8. Creating

    If we accept that the experience of the model isn't linear, then we sidestep whether Denial needs to be at 2. or 4. For supportive designing change processes, Phase 5 offers some nice opportunities for storytelling and similar interventions.

    Thanks for putting these models together!