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Stages of change: from grief to the new reality

Iria Rivero

Iria Rivero

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Table of Contents

As change agents, our first task is to understand the context when prompted with a challenge. To observe and generate conversations in order to understand what is happening.

Every situation is different, although it is true that there are repeated elements and, therefore, with time and experience, we can develop specific patterns.

To understand change management and avoid frustration as much as possible, Miriam Moreno, an expert in organizational transformations, articulates three fundamental points that should be kept in mind before getting started:

  1. People do what we want. If change does not convince us, we find a way not to join it. 
  2. Change is not managed; it is facilitated. Change agents are neither the leaders nor the protagonists, but our role is focused on facilitating that, as far as possible, the things that need to happen happen happen.  
  3. Whenever there is a change, there are always buts, doubts, fears, what is usually called resistance, and that is fine. If there are no objections, there are elements that have not emerged, and they need to do so. 

The use of tools in transformation processes, for example, Lean Change Management, shows that people face change differently. Factors such as character or context have influence, but one thing makes the difference: having chosen the change or having it imposed. 

If the change is chosen, the emotions that emerge are associated with happiness and fear. There is a particular fear of the unknown, but positive emotions in the expectation of a decided change prevail. 

If the change is not chosen, as usually happens in organizational transformations, two possible scenarios open up: one in which we have room to influence the changes and another in which it is something directly imposed. All we have to do is accept it.

First scenario: we have some freedom to negotiate the change requirements

After completing the first phase of understanding, it is essential to work with the promoters of the change. They will explain the purpose and necessity of the transformation process. People will only really join in if they understand and share the motive.

Let’s not forget that we do what we want to do, and if, in addition, there is no climate of trust, we will say yes, even if it is no.  

Once explained, the next step is to open a participatory process, in which the people within the scope of the change can contribute to the construction of the new reality.  

There are several elements to take into account:  

  • The facilitation space must be safe. Opinions and non-attendance cannot be penalized. Trust in this space is non-negotiable.  
  • The issues are complex and undecided topics can be worked on, but it is crucial to match the level of participation with the people’s energy
  • The conditions must be well defined, communicated, and known by all the people. 
  • To know the impact, it is important to ask for feedback and let the people involved know that their opinion is essential.  

If you cannot count on these elements, we are talking about situations where the promoters make decisions, which would fit the second scenario. It is essential to be aware of this because there is a worse situation than having no scope for impact on change: making those involved believe that they have a choice when it is not true. 

If, on the other hand, the conditions for the participatory process are ensured, the next step is to assess the level of participation with the stakeholders. Starting from the highest level of involvement to the lowest, we can open different spaces for interaction: 

  • Co-creation: there is total involvement. 
  • Collaboration: there is active participation. 
  • Contribution: there are moments of involvement.  
  • Motivation: the space is for sharing news that, in general terms, is beneficial for the whole company.   

Using the highest levels of participation does not guarantee success. Still, it directly impacts the adherence and commitment of the people who help to mobilize it. 

Second scenario: change is imposed, and there is nothing we can do to influence it.

When the requirements of change are non-negotiable, we can understand it from the perspective of a grieving process.

The emotions that emerge are different: disbelief, disorientation, grief or guilt. They do not always appear in the same order, with the same intensity, nor for the same length of time, but the mind struggles to adapt to a new reality that is not chosen. That is why it has all kinds of responses before coming to terms with the fact that we are no longer the same people we were before. This is what happens in a grieving process.

To help us understand it, we rely on the model of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who talks about the following stages:

  • Denial: this can come with a more or less profound level of shock. The mind cannot process this information, and as a defense mechanism, it blocks the impact. Fear dominates this stage, not expecting reality but confirming the wish that what is happening is not happening.
  • Anger: anger, indignation and resentment arrive. Blame is often sought in poorly made decisions or possible mistakes that help us understand what has happened.
  • Negotiation: the predominant emotion is disconsolation. We try to move forward through uncertainty and mold reality to something more similar to what we find bearable, acceptable in a new situation.
  • Sadness, demotivation or depression: this is the lowest point, the one necessary to gain momentum. A significant part of acceptance is being sad and unmotivated, feeling the loss, mourning it, and honoring it.
  • Acceptance: the first step to reach. It is about the end of an era, to understand that life has changed, without wanting or expecting it, but also without being able to remedy it, which is part of the game’s rules. It is the first step to living a new cycle and having an approach to new tasks.
The Kübler-Ross curve

Of course, not all grief has the same depth or the exact cost. It depends on the intensity and the time they last.

The less profound changes help us understand the reservations and protests that may arise. It allows us to accompany people through these phases in the more profound ones.

Facing a change of position, structure, methodology, functions, responsibilities or place of work is not always easy. Our role is to understand it to help people understand and accept this new reality.

It seems that this is the end of the road to change. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is still a widespread belief that the process begins and ends and that we won’t have to worry about it again for some time. The context in which we live tells us otherwise.

Change has become an understatement. The need is to become adaptive people and organizations that, in addition to reinventing themselves, are capable of accepting, facilitating and creating change whenever and wherever possible.

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About the Author

Iria Rivero

Iria Rivero

She studied Political Science and Administration at the Complutense University of Madrid. From 2008 onwards, she worked as a functional analyst until she came across Agile. Since then, she has gone from Product Owner to Scrum Master, being an Agile Coach and change agent. Since 2021 she has been at Netmind, helping teams in their new roles, accompanying organizations in their change roadmaps and training people in the Agile mindset. She believes in organizational culture as a driver of change and the diversity of different organizations. Among her certifications, she holds the Professional Scrum Master I from Scrum.org, Product Owner Certification from Scrum Manager, SAFe® 5 Agilist from Scaled Agile, the TKP from Kanban University and the LCA from the Lean Change Management Association.

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