Vacuum Grief: Leading through Change

by Stephen T. Messenger

April 12, 2021

Every Sunday morning at 11:00 we clean the house for an hour right after church.  This has been going on ever since we moved into our new home, and while the kids don’t like it all that much, they diligently comply.  But not this week.  A scheduling change rearranged our Sunday, and we threw a hand grenade at the crew on Saturday morning: “Kids, time to clean the house!”  You would have thought we told them the dog died.

I witnessed the five stages of grief right there in front of me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  We had to go through the first four to get to cleaning the house; there were some amazingly sweet offers in the bargaining phase to avoid vacuuming!  What I never connected until this fateful weekend was that every time a leader makes a change, their followers go through the stages of grief.  It’s a leader’s job to know what stage their employees are currently in to help them quickly work through the process to arrive at acceptance. 

The Kubler-Ross Change Model is a method to understand the emotional stages that followers go through when faced with change.  Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross equated employees reacting to change as mourners in the stages of grief.  She considers the process the same, whether handling a cancer diagnosis or a new organizational initiative.  

Kubler-Ross renames and adds a few stages when dealing with change in an organization: shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiment, decision, and integration.  Often, leaders expect followers to naturally and effortlessly transition from the first phase of shock to the last phase of integration (guilty as charged); however, this is not always the case, especially when the follower base sees no reason to change.  Leaders must understand which phase each employee is in and how to successfully help them move along the model.

Shock: Just as my kids didn’t expect a shift to the weekly cleaning ritual, a team seldom enjoys surprises that disrupt their routine.  Leaders must ease into this step by communicating the change in advance.  We knew cleaning day was shifting far in advance but failed to tell the kids.  Dampen the shock by communicating early and with the why behind it. 

Denial: Depending on the size of the change, employees may retreat inside and attempt to validate the impending change as a rumor.  We’ve all done this.  Bad news must be personally verified.  Leaders must work on myth-busting any misconceptions and control the rumor mill by talking to the employee base early and often.

Frustration: Once the team is convinced the change is coming, that certainly doesn’t mean they’ll like it.  Occasionally, time is needed to process their grief.  Give them space while allowing them to vent.

Depression: Nothing makes you feel more like a bad leader than a depressed team.  Leaders must be able to encourage at this point.  They’re almost through to the upswing in morale.  Positive encouragement is key in helping others to see a brighter future.

Experimentation: Once reality sets in, there’s not much left to do but give the new way a shot.  For me, that looked like two kids slowly sweeping air in the kitchen floor.  Maybe not productive but certainly progressing in the right direction.  Leaders need to closely supervise at this point and coach behaviors.

Decision: This is where the team senses that change may be effective, and if not, they’re at least willing to try a new way.  Positive thoughts start to break through, and barriers start to collapse.  Leaders exploit this positive momentum and highlight small wins to show progress.

Integration: Finally, the team is back to operating effectively and returning to their former selves.  Attitudes have recovered and the changes are being implemented effectively.  Leaders provide praise and thanks for all the hard work getting to this point.

Ultimately, the foundational principle of change comes back to people. Organizations are living, breathing organisms that are often chaotic and uncertain on how they will react; there are no right ways to initiate change.  A wrong way is to communicate a change and expect it to occur automatically.

Change leads to stress, which is contagious across the entire organization. If left unchecked, change can have negative effects when people stagnate in the early phases. Leaders must be proactive and continue to move the organization along through each phase, following an acceptable timeline, which can prove difficult. However, communicating the plan and following a planned strategy will help move followers from depression to accommodation.

One note is that you are going to go through change yourself.  Be mindful of where you fall on the Kubler-Ross Change Model and accelerate through quickly.  Knowing where you are can help reduce time spent in the denial, depression, and frustration phases and move to the experimentation and beyond phases.

Few people love change.  My kids certainly didn’t want to spend a Saturday morning unexpectedly cleaning bathrooms.  However, leaders can mitigate these disruptions by knowing where along the timeline their followers lie and how to best communicate with them along that path.  By showing empathy, engaging how and when it matters, and effectively communicating your message, you can help your team accomplish change more efficiently.

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