Change is an inevitable and necessary part of today’s workplace. But change can also be a struggle for the employees trying to adapt to it. Without intentional support from managers, employees might see the change through an emotional lens — as a threat rather than an opportunity. 

The Kübler-Ross Change Curve, which this post outlines, considers the ways employees react to and process change.

The 7 stages of the change curve

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is best known in the working world for her five-stage change model, but she’s best known in the world for her work on death and dying. The Swiss-born psychiatrist was also the author of the groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, where she first discussed what’s now known as the five stages of grief — also known as the Kübler-Ross model. You may already be familiar with the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages represent a typical range of emotions people experience when facing a major change in their lives, including but not limited to death.

The Kübler-Ross model holds true regarding organizational change, whether it’s a new system or management changes. No matter how small or large the change your company is implementing, encourage managers to understand the change curve so they can coach employees through each stage. By expanding the Kübler-Ross Change Curve to seven steps for the workplace, you can provide employees and managers with a model to process the emotional side of change.

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Stage 1: Shock

In this initial stage, employees will be in a position of shock and perhaps won’t be able to process the fact that they will have to undergo a change and adapt to something new. Once the numbness and shock wear off, people often resist engaging with the change, trying to prove that the change is either unreal or unnecessary. This typically leads to the next stage, denial. 

Stage 2: Denial

A common, temporary defense, denial gives people the chance to absorb the news of the change before moving on to other stages. They may pretend it’s not happening, hoping it’ll just go away on its own. At this stage, managers may notice a dip in productivity across their teams.

Stage 3: Frustration

After employees realize the change is real and will happen, the denial turns to frustration. They may look for someone within the company to pin their frustrations on. Whether that be their boss, themselves, or the powers that be — economic or otherwise. Employees can be irritable and sometimes short-tempered during this stage. 

Stage 4: Depression

Depression is the lowest point of the change curve. Some employees might show signs of depression through indifference or reclusiveness from others. Some may no longer have the energy or excitement for projects they once did. When employees accept that bargaining isn’t going to work and the reality of the change begins to set in, there could be an increase in absenteeism.

Stage 5: Experiment

The experiment phase further pushes employees out of their comfort zone. There could be low morale at this stage, so it’s important for managers to anticipate that, and create training around the change that will re-energize the team. Employees may have realized by now that there is no way out of the change.

Stage 6: Decision

This is the stage managers wait for — when employees begin to embrace the change and feel more positive. The team starts showing signs of improvement, and productivity rises as employees find positives in the changes. It’s important to celebrate the progress made to get to this point. 

Stage 7: Integration

The last stage, integration, incorporates the new changes in workplace culture. As employees begin to focus on the future and look towards progress, the change has fully replaced the original and has become a new reality.

Other ways to cope with change

Instead of excluding the emotional reaction to change, a framework like the Kübler-Ross Change Curve can help employees process what they’re feeling. For more practical ways to cope with change in the workplace, download The 5 Principles of Change Agility: How to Prepare For Anything.