The World of Work Project

The Change Curve

The change curve is a simple model that details how people respond to change. It originated from studies of grief and says people go through five main emotional states: Shock, Denial, Anger, Depression and Acceptance.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The Change Curve

The change curve is a simple model that says whenever someone experiences a large change, they will go through a fairly standard set of emotional responses to the change. Though the model it typically associated with negative changes, people who experience positive changes can also go through a period of emotional turmoil and adjustment.

Grieving and preparing for death are complex processes.

The original model by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross studied how people responded to the prospect of death. In her initial work, “On Death and Dying”, she focused on the five stages of grief that people go through as they approach death. This work was highly acclaimed, and the stages of change model that she proposed was adopted by the corporate world and used to define how people respond to all different forms of change.

Many people have modified the model slightly, so you may see different versions of it, but the core stages are all roughly the same: Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance (with Commitment often included in work based versions).

For individuals in the workplace, the faster they can get through the change curve, the better. For leaders, the faster they can help their teams get through the curve, the better.

The Stages of the Change Curve

Even a simple office move could initiate the change process.

Many events in the world of work may initiate an emotional journey through the change curve for individuals. These changes could include: restructuring, redundancy, new IT platforms, getting a new boss, moving to a new building or experiencing a change in work requirements.

Whatever the cause of the change, most people react in roughly the same way, progressing through the core emotional stages outlined in the model.

Different people, though, progress through the curve at different paces. Generally speaking, everyone benefits from getting through the curve as quickly as possible, as being at the earlier stages within the model is often disruptive.

The five core stages of the model are often slightly adjusted for use in the work environment. Accordingly, we too have decided to use a slightly modified version of the curve, which you can see in the diagram below.

As individuals progress through the different stages of the change curve, they will experience different emotions, feel different things and usually behave in different ways. We consider each of the stages of the change curve in a bit more detail in the coming paragraphs.

Denial

Immediately following a the initiation of change event, individuals often experience a stage of shock and denial. Information takes a while to sink in and for a while people behave as if the change isn’t taking place. At this stage people are in denial, and may simply carry on as if nothing has happened, or if what has happened affects others, but not them.

Resistance

After a little while the change starts to sink in. As this stage most people start to resist the change, particularly if it’s a negative change. Individuals may become angry and divisive and will normally start blaming others for the changes taking place, before then reversing the lens and blaming themselves for the change. Before they move towards acceptance they often feel lost and uncertain and experience a period of self-reflection.

Grrr… the clenched fists of resistance.

Acceptance

As time passes, individuals generally come to accept the change. Humans are quite elastic with their emotions over time and nearly everyone re-baselines themselves to whatever the new situation is. As individuals accept the change that they’re facing they start to realize that they must investigate the possibilities of the new future and look to make the best of it.

Exploration

Exploring new things can be rewarding.

Having decided to accept the new future that the change will lead to, individuals start to explore that new future. They ask questions and learn about it. They start to project themselves into it and visualize what it could hold for them. They plan for positive scenarios and solve problems they see along the way, generally with a view towards creating the best outcomes that they can.

Commitment

Once individuals have fully accepted, visualized and started to plan for the new way things are going to be, they can commit to that future. The post change reality becomes normal for them, it’s just the way things are now, and they increasingly work towards making it a good outcome.

Growth

The last stage that some people refer to in relation to the change curve is Growth. This is the stage after commitment in which individuals start to flourish in the new world. It’s not included in all models (and it’s not on the diagram we created above), but it’s fairly common to see it in work base change models.

It can take a long time to reach the stage where you’re ready to grow again.

Managing yourself through the change curve

Everyone experiences the emotional roller-coaster of the change curve when faced with significant changes. Progressing through the curve takes time for everyone, no mater how resilient they are or how experienced they are at dealing with change.

Coping with change does get easier with time though, up to a point. In addition, the more experience you have of any particular type of change, the easier it is to overcome and the more quickly you’ll progress through the change curve for similar changes.

Some changes get easier with more experience of them.

It’s also possible to practice change and improve your ability to respond to change. This process starts with an awareness of the change journey. Knowing that it exists helps you identify where you are on a journey, thus helps you understand your own emotions and behaviors.

Developing your own self awareness and emotional intelligence is also a very useful way to improve your ability to cope with change. Similarly, improving your own resilience and investing time in your own wellbeing can also help

The World of Work Project View

The change curve is a really useful model to help people understand the personal psychology of the change process. Nearly everyone goes through a change cycle, and being aware of that and having words and tools to communicate it is helpful for individuals, leaders and organizations.

Different people travel along the change curve at different paces, but faster is pretty much always better.

Leaders should remember that they are usually further forward along the curve then their teams, and should lead in a way appropriate for where their teams are.

Overall, we’re big fans of the change curve.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

The core underlying theory in this post comes from work by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who first documented the original change curve in her book “On Death and Dying“.

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