Grief And Organizational Change

Change. For many people, it’s 6 of the the scariest letters ever strung together in the history of humanity. It’s common for us to want to perpetuate the familiar. Even if it’s not comfortable, at least we know what to expect from the discomfort of it. Our response to change is one of the most irrational actions, in my opinion, we can exhibit. There are all the platitudes like “Without change, improvement will never happen” and “Change is the only constant.”. They are all true and have their merit.

Grief And Organizational Change image griefGrief And Organizational ChangeOne of our clients is facing one of the most challenging changes many organizations ever face later this year…a merger. They are well-versed regarding leadership and are doing some great work in the areas of culture and engagement. The thing that makes them nervous and uncertain is the best way to manage this change, while still staying focused on what they are already doing well.

The commonality of this makes it an important issue for many companies. The emotional roller coaster that goes with that type of change can elicit the same response as grieving a loss. There is a loss; a loss of the familiar and a uncertain future without something that, at one time, gave a level of comfort in one form or another.

Using the 5 stages of grief, here are some suggestions for managing the change that visits your organization from time to time and how to prepare and respond in a way that facilitates this process quickly.

  • Denial & isolation – Some people don’t accept what they perceive to be bad news. They simply refuse delivery. The latest change coming – at least in their minds – is just another initiative by “them” that will be abandoned and lose steam. So, they just don’t bother with paying attention to it. They try not to associate with anyone talking about or attempting to embrace the change. Take some time to chat with them to learn how they feel about the change. Ask questions about what they think will be bad about it, then ask if there is a possibility something good can come from it. Perhaps hold a team meeting to provide an open forum to discuss things. Often times, uncovering a misunderstanding or fear about the change can help with communication efforts.
  • Anger – When the inevitability of the change is realized, there is usually a response of frustration and anger. The change becomes “stupid” and “unnecessary” and they are reluctant to do anything that resembles any form of support as an act of defiance. The change will be the end of everything good and most likely some hungry child in a developing nation could die because of it. Understand the frustration and provide an outlet for it that is constructive, but doesn’t negatively impact the team or the culture. This will be different for every organization and every department. You have to know your people. It may be a little extra work, but not near as much work as trying to lead a fragmented team because you didn’t properly deal with change early on.
  • Bargaining – Quite often this takes the form of forewarning people of their “personalized” behavioral response to the change. There are mountains of evidence which support why they are justified in their newly defined role responsibilities, which is usually just an attempt to save face from all the verbal rants that came in the Anger stage. Bargaining is creativity turned sideways. Try focusing that creativity on some aspect that is aligned with the new change. It gives people a chance to come to terms with the new reality and offers them a chance to dip their toe in the water before actually drinking the Kool-Aid.
  • Depression – At some point, there is a realization that all the toddler-esque temper tantrums, clever quips and attempts to dissuade things from becoming the unfamiliar will ultimately fail to be successful. There is a sense of failure and feeling that their voice doesn’t matter and they are doomed to be a victim to eternal bureaucracy that will be the end of civilization as we know it. Such a depressing place. They feel like a victim. This is a perfect opportunity to provide opportunity for this team member to have a voice. When seeking feedback from your team, make sure you ask for their perspective. Get them actively involved with something positive. Getting a quick win on the board for them can help drag them out of the doldrums.
  • Acceptance – This is where we want all people all the time. It’s the brass ring in culture development and engagement efforts. The quicker we can get people to this place, the better chance we have at succeeding. Celebrate people’s acceptance to the changes taking place. Show genuine gratitude for it and make sure you take the opportunity to connect it with the vision, mission and culture of the organization. The better you celebrate acceptance, the shorter the grieving process when the next change comes along.

In the context of 21st Century business, change can come in such rapid-fire succession it feels like you’re drinking from a fire hose most days. Take some time to understand how managing grief can help you navigate organizational change so you have a better chance of staying ahead of the curve.

I’m interested in hearing your discussion on this. What are your experiences?

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