Change Curve

The Kübler-Ross Change Curve is a model that describes the emotional stages a person may go through when dealing with a significant loss or change.
The Change Curve Mutomorro
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What is the Kübler-Ross Change Curve?

Diagram of the Kübler Ross change curve

The Kübler-Ross Change Curve was originally designed to explore the 5 stages of grief experienced by terminally ill patients. It’s since been adopted (and adapted) for organisational change – being used as a framework to explore the emotional impact of change on people. As a result it’s become an important model in the change toolkit.

Originally developed by a Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. It was used as a guide to the various emotional states of grief (or change) and how to best support people as they progressed through it. Ultimately, it was designed to help people move to a positive state of acceptance and adaptation to their new situation.

We’re hardwired to dislike change, and significant change in our lives disrupts the status quo, creates uncertainty and can impact peoples perspective and behaviour. It’s emotionally destabilising which affects resilience, relationships, performance and overall job satisfaction. The change curve looks to codify the different emotional states related to change and how each one can be best managed.

Important note: This is not a change “process”, and shouldn’t be used as the steps to implement change. Instead, use it alongside your existing plan to plot the emotional journey for staff and how to plan for it.

How is the Kübler-Ross Change Curve used?

Major change events can be distressing and difficult times for those involves, but the emotional context often gets overlooked as part of the change management process. The change curve is used to visualise these emotional characteristics.

Although everyone deals with change differently, and people will experience it in different ways, there are still commonalities during the process. The change curve helps to diagnose these stages and how best to support people as they progress through them.

It’s a useful tool for managers and leaders to use when they are supporting staff through a significant change, such as mergers or restructures. It can also be used on a one-to-one level when staff are working through a difficult transition.

It’s worth noting that the change curve isn’t designed so we can artificially push people through the stages. It’s definitely not a tick-box progression from one step to the next. It’s designed so we can spot behaviours and symptoms which might suggest where people are, and then help us create the right environment, support and activities for them.

Uses for the change curve:

  • Helping people manage the uncertainty of change.
  • Supporting people to understand their own emotional response to change.
  • Template to develop activities and interventions to help people through change.
  • Effective planning to manage and mitigate the stages of change.
  • Improve the chances of moving beyond the more problematic parts of the change curve sooner.

How to use the Kübler-Ross Change Curve

No two people (or organisations) experience change in exactly the same way, but there are common themes. The key to using the change curve is to proactively prepare for these themes with the right tools and approach. Use the following stages to explore the change curve.

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Overview of the Change Curve

Essentially, the change curve is broken down into 4 stages, each with its own emotional cycles. It’s worth noting that people will take different paths and timeframes to work through these stages and some may pass through some parts altogether.

Diagram of the Kübler Ross change curve

Some people are naturally open to change more than others, and may be sufficiently intrenched in the status quo that they struggle to move forwards.

Use these as guidelines rather than a hard process. Explore with your team, business or individuals to understand where they think they are or observe behaviours that you could relate to one of the stages.

1. Status Quo Stage – Change Curve

The first stage looks at the progression from the status quo to the change happening. This initial process can be unsettling and destabilising.

Stage 1 of the Kübler Ross Change Curve - Status Quo, Shock and Denial

It’s a natural reaction to uncontrolled change – the key here being uncontrolled. In this stage, the change is being imposed on people. They’ll react accordingly.

Reaction: Shock and denial of the change to come

The early reaction to change is likely to be shock (or disbelief). This is the initial reaction to a disruption of the status quo. It may include withdrawal or group shock reaction (where teams hunker down and engage less with others).

This is often followed by denial. A refusal to engage with or acknowledge the change and what it may mean. Both of these responses are self-protection mechanisms and designed to subconsciously prevent the change or protect the individual from it.

Approach: Communicate and contextualise 5x more than you think you should

The key to this stage is to create the perception of individual control. Think about it in terms of shining a torch into the darkness to give people an idea of where you’re heading and why.

The easiest way to do this is to explain and contextualise as much as possible, and to do it far more than you think is necessary. Time feels different when we’re waiting on news or feeling anxious about something. A day can feel like a lifetime.

A good rule of thumb at this stage is: If you’re not being you’re communicating too much, then you’re not communicating enough.

Aim to answer the questions people may have ahead of time and build a richness and openness to the narrative. You’re aiming to explain the change journey in practical but also emotional terms – helping people to visualise the unknown and to feel greater control over the process.

2. Disruption Stage – Change Curve

The next stage of the change curve deals with the initial stages of the change implementation. There’s likely to be a large amount of disruption

Stage 2 of the Kübler Ross Change Curve - Disruption, frustration and depression

It’s a natural reaction to uncontrolled change – the key here being uncontrolled. In this stage, the change is being imposed on people. They’ll react accordingly.

Reaction: Frustration and depression

Once the initial denial has subsided you may encounter frustration and anger. “Why are we doing this?”, “it’s not going to work”.

You may find people are hyper vigilant to errors or issues in these stages. They are looking for external justification for their emotional state.

Different teams and individuals will experience this part of the change differently. It will depend on how effected they are, their resistance to change in general and the style of management/leadership they’re used to. Adaptive teams or teams used to a coaching style of leadership tend to be more comfortable with change.

Approach: Give people a voice and a say

Although it’s tempting – trying to combat these emotional beliefs with facts could be counter productive. Instead, the focus should be on listening, documenting, engaging with and iterating the process.

This is a time to demonstrate that the issues or concerns you’re hearing are being acknowledged and addressed. It’s a great time for open forums to ask questions, voice issues and workshop ideas.

3. Exploration Stage – Change Curve

During this stage of change teams are working to integrate and understand the change. It’s a time of experimentation and iteration while the new change is embedded.

Stage 3 of the Kübler Ross Change Curve - Exploration and Experiment

Teams can regress from this stage back to frustration if approaches fail or they encounter issues. This is a completely natural part of the change process and it’s worth highlighting as an expected part of the journey.

Reaction: Acceptance by experimentation

During this stage we’re looking to empower teams by enabling them to experiment and iterate within their existing process or service. The critical part here is to support teams to experiment without judgement. You’ll stifle the change process if teams feel worried they’ll mess up or be reprimanded for experimenting.

This is also a key part of the process to give teams autonomy and control back. Integrate it into part of the handover process but give teams the time to work with the change management team and change champions.

Approach: Empower through discovery

We want to give teams the control and authority to start discovering for themselves. This can be unnerving for the change management team, but it can be achieved thorough collaboration and joint-working.

For individuals we’re aiming to support them through this process. Some will struggle to manage their emotional state and some sort of support or coaching can be useful.

4. Rebuild Stage – Change Curve

The final stage of the change curve looks at the process is integration. It generally includes the “decision” to accept the change and build on it – rather than a resistance to it.

Stage 4 of the Kübler Ross Change Curve - Rebuilding and reintegration

Bear in mind that this is about emotional state, rather than your change project plan. Your integration/rebuild stage may not align with how people are feeling and so it’s useful to gauge whether more work needs to be done with teams before you can move forwards.

Reaction: Decision and Acceptance

When people accept change they begin to adapt and integrate the new normal into their (work) lives. At this stage the emotional state should change too – becoming more positive and forward looking.

It’s an opportunity to work with teams and staff to build on their acceptance and continue to integrate the change.

Approach: Reinforce the reason to change

Focus on the successes and changes already being made. Use social capital to highlight the good being done across the organisation and how it’s benefiting teams and customers.

It’s also worth including the challenges teams have faced and the way they’ve overcome these. It creates a more balanced narrative and helps teams who are struggling feel like they’re not alone.

Summary of the Change Curve

The Change Curve is a useful tool to manage and proactively work with the emotional journey for staff and teams as they go through complex change.

Change Curve Template

Use this downloadable change curve tool to integrate into your next change management project and explore with teams.

This article was originally written as part of my coaching practice, The Pathfinder Coach.

Change Curve Template

Click the link to download this change curve template and use it with your teams.

Diagram of the Kübler Ross change curve

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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