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  • Writer's pictureJon Mechan

Managing Change (That You Didn't Choose)

Sometimes things happen to us in life that we don't choose. In a business context this could be a reorganization, a new boss, or even losing your job. Outside of work it could be the loss of a loved one, the breakdown in a relationship, or a serious illness.

Whatever the context, you're going to go through changes and it can help to be aware of where you are and how you might carry on.


Perhaps the most famous model of change comes from a book on grief from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 60's. While it's been tweaked and discussed since, the outline remains as applicable now as it did then. Whether it's a change or a loss, you'll find yourself going through multiple stages during the process.

The key thing here is that this isn't linear - you'll find you experience different aspects several times as time passes. One day you'll feel angry, another maybe more accepting...and then suddenly you'll be angry again.

It's important to be aware that all of this is normal. Your feelings are legitimate and real. You don't need anyone's permission to feel any particular way. When you become more aware of how you're feeling, you'll find it easier to move through - there's no right or wrong, and it'll take as much time as it takes. One thing that I've personally found helpful is to remember that "this too shall pass". However you're feeling now, it won't last forever.

Grief in a Business Context

These stages of grief can manifest in the context of business change as well. Remember that many people's identity is closely tied to their work and so a change that impacts someone's organization, team, or role can create a grief response.

1. Denial: The first stage is often characterized by shock and disbelief. The team may refuse to accept the change, even after its announcement. They may continue to operate as if nothing has changed, hoping that things will remain the same.

2. Anger: As reality sets in, employees may become frustrated or angry about the change. They may feel like the decision was made without their input or that they are being unfairly impacted by it. This impact can be reduced by making sure that team members are involved or at least consulted about the plans.

3. Bargaining: In this stage, employees may try to negotiate with management or try to find ways to mitigate the impact of the change on themselves or their team.

4. Depression: As the full impact of the change becomes apparent, some employees may begin to feel sad or hopeless about their situation. This can be mitigated somewhat by constant and clear communication about the reasoning behind the change, including talking about upsides for the team and the business.

5. Acceptance: Eventually, most employees will come to accept the change and begin adapting to their new circumstances.

A victim of change

Leading Through Change

As leaders we frequently have to help our teams through change. One thing I've noticed is that because often the leaders are aware of the change in advance of the team, they've already gone through the grief cycle and forgotten that the team hasn't.

As a result it's critical to allow the team time to adjust. This means doing a couple of things - being consistent and clear in your communication, and being empathetic towards your team members.

Communicate the change as well and as clearly as possible. Sometimes it isn't possible to share all of the details - share as much as you can and don't promise things that aren't going to happen.

To show empathy with your team, make sure you (or your managers) are checking in with them. See what's happening and answer any questions as best you can.

Speaking of questions - holding events like town halls are really important. Communicate the details of the change and give lots of opportunity for Q&A. Giving direct access to senior leaders can really help build trust and confidence in the change. The team can guarantee that nothing is getting lost in translation in the cascade of communication.

This is one thing my current CIO and his team excel at. There are regular communications with the teams via town halls, with live Q&A followed by written answers to any questions that didn't get addressed during the live session.

Finally, providing resources and access to help and support from different sources can be super valuable - while as leaders we want to help as much as possible ourselves, having other teams be part of the process is helpful too, such as HR and employee resource groups, if applicable. For some changes, external sources of support might also be necessary.

When you think back to the most recent change you went through, did you experience any of the emotions outlined above? If you're leading through change, how are you supporting your team? What would you do differently next time?

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