Grief is Good

Organizational change is tough for those on the receiving end. But grieving is essential to change.
August 13, 2008
By Peter Hutchinson  |  Contributor
Leader of management consulting strategy for Accenture’s U.S. state and local government practice

I am leading us through a lot of change where I work. We are changing what we do, how we do it and with whom we do it. I was hired to make change happen. I am a change-maker. I see the status quo as the enemy. It is exhilarating to see all the possibilities that change affords, and then to align resources, systems and staff to make them happen. Change is fun. Unless you are on the receiving end.

Our staff, and those we have traditionally served, are not making change -- they are receiving it. They are "change-takers." For them, the status quo has been their friend. Change is not exhilarating; it is disorienting. Like all of us, their view of the world has been based on the assumption that they could pretty much count on the future being like the past. The changes we are making invalidate that assumption and disrupt their worldview. They are being forced to let go of the familiar, while being asked to embrace something new. It won't be easy. Every conceivable emotion will be unleashed -- fear, anger, envy, depression. Some will be vocal, others silent. Some will be aggressively hostile, others passive aggressive. Some will be consciously resistant, others will not be aware of their own resistance. Change creates grief.

Grief is good. Grieving is essential to change. Grieving is the process of reconciling ourselves with new circumstances, with a changed world. Without grief, change would paralyze us, drive us insane.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross offered us insight into the process of grieving. In her book, On Death and Dying, she described the cycle of grief: it moves through five distinct stages -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Kübler-Ross was studying grief in the context of death. All change involves death -- the ending of something. Before people can reconcile themselves to change, they must go through the grieving cycle. No exceptions.

For us change-makers, this means that managing change requires more than burning platforms and compelling visions. It requires a conscious effort to manage people through the cycle of grief. There is no shortcut or way around. When we lead people into change, we are leading them through a process of grieving. We cannot tell them to "get over it." But we can both challenge and support them as they make the journey. Here is what it takes from leaders to bring their folks successfully through the process:

Denial: Change is a threat to people's assumptions and beliefs. Communicate the new reality in multiple ways. Make it clear that not changing is not an option. Make it equally clear what is not changing -- most often core values.

Anger: The threat of change leads to fear -- often expressed as anger. Honor and understand the fear -- explicitly explore the worst outcomes that can be imagined, along with the worst outcomes of not changing.

Bargaining: At this stage, people want to make a deal, usually to hold on to as much of the past as possible. Keep the focus on the purpose -- the goal to be achieved through change. Don't relent. Don't discount the commitment to the purpose. Stay loose on the rest. In the bargaining phase, good ideas will emerge. Embrace them.

Depression: Eventually people give in and give up. They stop fighting. The risk is that they will get stuck there. Provide vision, a picture of the new normal. Make the new tangible.

Acceptance: Celebrate. Create a ceremony of acceptance. Build trust and confidence in the possibilities.

Change is inevitable, even necessary. But it is not easy. Grief is part of the process and grief is good in helping us let go of the past so we can embrace the future. There are no shortcuts, but there are specific things we can do to ease the process. Leading change means leading through grief. Good grief.

Final note for leaders: You have to go through the grief cycle, too. No one is exempt. Even as you are leading or causing change, do not ignore your own grief. It will be good for you and a good example for those you are leading.