The Kübler Ross Change Curve in the Workplace (2023)
Organizational change disrupts the status quo and triggers different emotional responses from employees, with internal resistance to change surfacing as a result.
Change leaders are able to anticipate these responses by leveraging popular change models such as ‘The Change Curve’ to understand these stages of personal transition, as well as provide necessary guidance and support to their employees to set them up for success.
In this article, we’ll break down the change curve, explore its five stages, how to limit the impact of change projects, and how you can apply learnings from the change curve model to your upcoming initiatives.
What Is the Change Curve?
The Change Curve, or Kübler Ross’ Change Curve Model, was created by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. It depicts 5-stages of grief denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
However, the utility of this model also extends to the corporate world, to better understand the emotional turmoil faced by an employee due to any change initiative at the workplace, such as a new software implementation or business process improvement.
Change practitioners may implement this model to identify any barriers to change projects early on and strategize accordingly.
5 Stages of the Kübler Ross’ Change Curve Model
Here are the five stages of natural emotional responses highlighted in the Kübler Ross’ Change Curve Model:
The first stage is shock or denial, and an individual puts forward their defense mechanisms to deflect the actual occurrence of the change. There is a steep decline in employee productivity in this stage, as it’s only human to cling to past processes or individual expectations, leading to a disconnect with reality.
When the reality of change sinks in, it’s manifested in the form of fear or anger. Any change initiative has the potential to spiral out of control in this stage, resulting in significant change failures.
For example, video marketing software company Wistia focused on aggressive business growth. Post its profitability, leaders went astray from company values, causing employee burnout & attrition. Instead of investing in the existing strategy and framework, the company hired aggressively, spent more on advertising, and consumed its current profits.
Once an individual crosses the anger stage of the change curve, they attempt to salvage the situation by exploring the path of least objection. They may try to negotiate and find a compromise.
In the depression stage, a person loses hope entirely. There are signs of extreme sadness, regret, and demotivation.
In the final stage of the change curve, individuals come to terms with the change. Their inhibitions are lowered, they accept the change, and start to explore new favorable opportunities that are a result of the change. Once employees accept the change, you must cement the change into your organizational culture to avoid reverting to old habits.
Benefits of the Change Curve
The Change Curve is a simple, yet effective change model to manage organizational change. Here are the key benefits of the applying the Change Curve model to your upcoming change projects:
- Industry agnostic: The Change Curve is based on observations and in-depth study of the subject matter. The stages in this curve are not influenced by any specific industry and fit well across industries.
- Ease of use: The change curve has straightforward stages and a fairly simple implementation making it relatively easier to use than other change models such as ADKAR and Kotter’s Change Model.
- Objective change management: The change curve focuses entirely on emotional responses to change, which empowers managers to be confident that their teams will respond in a set pattern.
Limitations of the Change Curve
Although the change curve is an effective model, there are a few limitations of this change model:
- Different responses: Different employees will adapt at different speeds resulting in employees being at different stages in the change curve., This often leads to planning and time management issues.
- Observational model: The initial five stages of grief were based on the observation of terminally-ill patients and death. In the case of another scientific model with the strong support of empirical data, it can render this model irrelevant, as it wasn’t originally created with corporate change in mind.
- Connection between the stages: The change curve doesn’t establish a clear interconnection between its stages, as not every individual undergoes all the stages.
Applying the Change Curve to Organizational Change
In the graph below, the yellow curve signifies the overall change curve, while the orange curve depicts how change agents are able to leverage the change curve to minimize the negative impacts and accelerate the change implementation process.
Here are the most effective action items for implementing the change curve model to support your organization’s change projects:
1. Clear change communication
When team members are in the shock or denial stage, they need reassurance. This can only come from transparent and clear change communication. Change communication must highlight the need for change, vision, strategy, and impact on the stakeholders.
2. Avoid roadblocks
When an individual is in a state of anger, self-destructive tendencies may surface. During this stage, change agents must keep an eye out for the potential roadblocks that may slow down your change journey. You must manage this change by being an active listener and observer. Create a safe space for employees to voice their opinions.
3. Offer contextual employee training
When there is a dip in employee productivity as a result of team members trying out and exploring new software, process, or other change, it’s essential to offer personalized employee training programs to help your workforce onboard a new tool or learn a new process – helping to bridge any skill gaps and build confidence.
4. Recognize & celebrate critical milestones
A change invokes several emotions and may cause discomfort. However, when employees begin behavioral modification and being to accept the change, organizations must recognize the initial drivers of change and reward them. Once you achieve a critical milestone, be sure to celebrate these wins.
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Even with transformational change leaders and a well-detailed implementation plan, change efforts may still fail. Change Leaders must explore change management tools such as digital adoption platforms to make a bulletproof strategy that empowers and supports help end-users through the change journey.
Whatfix’s DAP enables effortless change rollout by empowering employees with in-app features such as interactive walkthroughs, pop-ups, embedded wikis, and task lists. It reduces the time and effort required to create training content and reduces support tickets by fostering a self-help culture amongst its end-users.
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