How to Coach Your Team Through 5 Stages of Grief

Based on the Kübler-Ross Change Curve

We often resist the things that are the best for us — waking up early, vegetables, exercise, meditation, calling our mothers — but why is building better habits so overwhelmingly difficult? One word — CHANGE.

It can be our greatest ally, the catalyst for growth and acceleration of realizing our higher selves. Many philosophies outline the Law of Impermanence and urge us to surrender to, and make peace with this number one certainty in life. Our refusal to change is futile, so why the resistance?

The answers may lie in a psychological model called The Kübler-Ross Change Curve, also known as the 5 Stages of Grief. It was proposed by Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book called Death and Dying. It outlines the stages of emotions experienced by a person in relation to loss. This concept has since been extended and applied to any situation relating to change, as it is usually equated with some loss, however minor. Here are the reactions outlined in the model from resistance to acceptance:

Image from Cleverism.com

The Importance of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve in Business

You can spend huge amounts of resources to employ a change in a system and process, but even if it makes employees’ lives easier and benefits the whole company, there will always be that opposition factor.

In our experience introducing businesses to our project management software, Taskworld, we have seen this first-hand. Despite the benefits of using a team management software, many teams still cling to spreadsheets and email. The resistance to change, not data-driven decision making, dictates the choice to hold on to archaic and inefficient project management practices.

These disruptions in the flow can carry on for months and create counterproductive problems, but armed with the right knowledge, managers can see the challenges before they arise and guide the process along the path of least resistance.

The easier it is for the employees to move along on their journey, the easier will it be for the organization to move towards success.

The Change Curve is a powerful model to understand the stages of personal and organizational transitions. It can help managers predict how their teams will react to change within the company, so they can make sure their colleagues have the help and support they need. Coaching with the right style can assure that the transition from resistance to acceptance is smooth, and the teams and company can reap the true benefits of a change in systems or processes.

Coaching and The Change Curve AKA How to Avoid Mutiny

As managers and team leaders we must first understand that resistance to change, for the majority of people, is the norm. It is not that your team members are inherently stubborn and want to stop progress, it’s just that they’ve developed defense or coping mechanisms to manage change, according to Kübler-Ross’ theory. It is also essential to know that people don’t move through these stages in a neat liner manner, but rather they can occupy different stages simultaneously and sometimes regress or progress at different times in the process.

Here are the five stages of The Change Curve and how to coach your team through to success:

Image from Insights.com

STAGE 1: Denial

In the beginning, team members may be in shock and defensive in relation to the announced change. They may not be able to digest the fact that they will have to adapt to something new. It can bring about a dip in productivity and the inability to think and act. After the shock, a person may cling to the past and move forward like nothing has changed. In the most extreme cases, they may remain in a state of denial for a long time and lose touch with reality.

Coaching advice: During this phase, a manager should help employees understand why the change is being made and what’s in it for them. Focusing on face-to-face communication and simply listening to your colleagues concerns will help ease the process. Don’t overwhelm them with information, but rather release it gradually, and consider that one on one discussions, rather than a meeting, could be a better way to break the news and avoid group think.

STAGE 2: Anger

When the realization finally hits, employees or workers may begin to feel fear for what lies ahead and some team members may even become angry and full of resentment. Anger can be manifested or expressed in many ways. While some take out the anger on themselves, others may direct it towards others around them. You can expect those in this phase to remain irritable, frustrated and short tempered.

Coaching advice: For the organization, this stage is the “danger zone.” If this stage is badly managed, the organization may descend into crisis or chaos. This stage needs careful planning and preparation. As someone responsible for change, you should prepare for this stage by carefully considering the impacts and objections that people may have. Listen and watch carefully during this stage so you can respond to the unexpected. Also understand that this is just a natural reaction and with time, it shall pass away and make way for acceptance.

STAGE 3: Bargaining

When the stage of anger passes away, one may start thinking about ways to postpone the inevitable and try to find out the best thing left in the situation. This is when you may hear your team members say, “What if we do this?” or, “Can I fit here?” They’ll need to test and explore what the change means. They will do this more easily if they are helped and supported to do so, even if this is a simple matter of allowing enough time for them to do so.

Coaching advice: Be open to suggestions as this may bring some relief to those who are moving closer to acceptance. However, they may still resist by trying to learn only what they think is important, so make sure as an employer or part of management, you set clear timelines and expectations. Hold workshops and trainings to ensure the change incorporated can run successfully. Productivity cannot be expected to be 100 percent during this phase but allowing extra time in this stage can pay off later.

STAGE 4: Depression

You’re not out of the woods quite yet. After the bargaining phase, there is one more dip in the curve. The learning phase may not always be a happy and comfortable zone for most employees of a workplace. Employees may have realized by now that there is no way out of the situation, resulting in low morale and energy, and even depression. Team members stuck in this stage may display signs of indifference or push others away. This is a low energy phase and requires a lot of support to renew feelings of motivation.

Coaching advice: It is important for management to understand that this phase is not easy for the team. The more exciting the training can be made, the better would it be for employees to move ahead and give their best. Here, apply positive feedback in the learning process and motivate the team with rewards.

STAGE 5: Acceptance

When people realize that fighting the change that is coming into their life is not going to make the grief go away, they resign to the situation and accept it completely. This stage is the one you have been waiting for! This is where the changes start to become second nature, and people embrace the improvements to the way they work.

Coaching advice: Managers will finally begin to see the benefits of the hard work put in so far. The team is showing improvements now, and the overall productivity begins to improve. Here, repeat and reinforce objectives and strategy and make sure to share successes with the team. It is now time to celebrate and move towards a brighter future.


About the author

Jessica Zartler is a digital nomad and Multimedia Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist for Taskworld. Before working in Public Relations and Marketing, she was an award-winning television reporter and multimedia journalist for eight years in Florida and Colorado. When she is not hunting for the best content on the web to share with TW users, blogging or producing videos, she is teaching yoga, cooking, playing drums and travelling.