Organisational change perceived as a disease? 6 stages of Kübler-Ross curve

Change in the organisation, even a small, minor change, can be a really big pain – not only for people actually experiencing it, but for the company itself. There is entire spectrum of reactions to change – from the enthusiasm and true engagement to skepticism or even active sabotaging. It’s worth to remember, that usually it’s not fault of people affected by the change to be opponents of it – they just reactDiscussing the topic of reactions to change in the organization, it’s worth to get a closer look on those negative reactions (we should not skip positives of course, but it’s for another discussion). As researches show, people affected by the change are going through some specific path, surprisingly convergent with the spectrum of reactions of people hearing from the doctor they will die – the Kübler-Ross curve.

Kubler-Ross curve - reactions to change

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was an American physician, who in her famous book “On death and dying” defined and described 5 stages that every dying person comes through. Researches show those stages are lookalikes with stages of acceptance of the change in the organisation.

  1. Denial
    Remind yourself now “House M.D.”, when Hugh Laurie needed to say his patient he or she will die and there’s nothing the hospital can do. What was the reaction? Denial.
    No, it’s impossible! or But yesterday it was all good, I’m not going to die!
    Well, the same we can observe when the change is communicated to employees:

    No, it’s stupid idea! ; No one asked me, I don’t want it to be like this! ; If they do it, I’ll quit!

  1. Anger
    After first denial, when the news are becoming more and more real, the second stage comes: anger.

    What they’re thinking! I spent in this company 20 years and now they’re doing something like this TO ME?

  1. Bargaining
    During this stage people tend to make wagers; trying to bribe the faith to prevent the change.

    If they just let me finish this or that before changing the entire structure…

  1. Depression
    This is the one of most difficult stages – fighting with depression. During this stage people are becoming more and more apathetic, they don’t react. They just realized the change is going to happen either way – and awareness of this fact weighs them down.
  2. Exploration
    The differentiating stage – this is were magic happens. At this stage people affected by the change start to adapt, they start to see possible advantages and benefits from the change (for obvious reasons this stage does not exists in spectrum of reaction to news about lethal disease).
    Here appropriate change management activities are crucial, because the next stage is:
  3. Acceptance / Commitment
    … and only from change management depends which form this final stage will take. At this stage people stop fighting against the impossible to avoid. They know change will happen and they accept the fact and all known consequences… But well planned and executed activities will allow to overcome resistance and from people reconciled with faith create true proponents and advocates of the change.

Two thoughts worth to remember considering the spectrum of reactions to change in the organisation. First of all, those stages are fluent and people can move towards and backwards on the curve. Reaching one stage does not mean people won’t come back to the one of previous stages.
Secondly – not all must go through all stages step by step consciously. Sometimes – it’s possible – some stages last for literally hours; those stages may be so short that nobody can see them.

All above – comparing change management to death and realising in both cases people are going through almost the same Kübler-Ross curve – might sounds scary.

Now – realising that most of your employees will react to the change you now plan to introduce in your company like they would react if someone told them about their soon death – what can you do to facilitate the entire process? You will not resign if business proves the change is necessary.

Well, you need to make sure your employees feel the change is done with them, not to them.

Do you have any experience with such a negatively taken change in the organisation? Did you ever feel not being part of the change, but the change is done to you?
Or maybe on the contrary – change in your organisation was well communicated, the process went smoothly and you were considered as an advocate? Please share your thoughts and comments below!

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Andrzej Okrasa

Senior Digital Transformation Consultant at Atos Global Delivery Center Poland
Open-minded digital transformation consultant.

I have 7+ years of experience gathered in various branches, helping organisations on different levels of their Digital Journey. My professional interests cover CRM, Change Management and Change Communication, Marketing Automation (Hubspot certificates, Salesforce trainings) and analytics (Google Analytics Individual Certification).

I like to spend my free time with my two dogs - silly but adorable english cocker spaniels. And books - I couldn't live without at least one new book per week.
Andrzej Okrasa
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Organisational change perceived as a disease? 6 stages of Kübler-Ross curve
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Organisational change perceived as a disease? 6 stages of Kübler-Ross curve
Change in the organisation, even a small, minor change, can be a real big pain. There is entire spectrum of reactions to change – people affected by the change are going through specific path: Kübler-Ross curve.
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Atos GDC Poland
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