People Don’t Fear Change, We Fear Loss

The title of this blog comes from the work of Ronald Heifetz: “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.”

In my work, our partners Jennifer Brown Consulting brought in the Kubler-Ross Model to discuss how people deal with change. Most people are familiar with this model when grieving a death, you may recognize this model as the five stages of grief. Kubler-Ross outlines a series of emotional stages when one is facing a loss or death.

They are:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

This is not a linear process. A person may start in Anger and move to Denial and wallow in Depression before they attempt to Bargain and fall back into Anger before hopefully making it to Acceptance. And even when we accept the change, we make continue to feel Depression and Anger. I’ve written about cancer in my blog, so let me share a workplace example that everyone has experienced, getting a new manager.

Talking the five stages in order, here is what an individual may be experiencing and thinking.

A New Manager
Denial – “No way are we getting a new boss. I will believe it when they show up in the office.”
Anger – “I just got used to the way my old boss manages things! Now we all have to start over again.”
Bargaining – “Maybe this new boss won’t last long and they will bring back the boss who I liked so much. I’m going to just skate by and not get too involved at work or with this unknown boss.”
Depression – “I am not going to listen to this new boss and her stupid new ideas. I’m not going to even try at work. Why should I bother?”
Acceptance – “I’m watching my colleagues acting happy at work, maybe this new boss is all right after all.”

What is to fear in this case? It is a loss or facing an unknown. Losing what is comfortable for you at work, a familiar person in charge can be nerve-wracking. No one knows the new boss or what she or he expects in terms of performance. The new person may come in and change everyone’s job. Or she or he may create a new organizational structure that means you have new job responsibilities and lose what is comfortable and easy to you.

If you think about any life change, you can probably apply these five stages to your own experiences. Maybe you’ve been asked to take a new position in a different department. Or, perhaps your life partner or spouse has been offered a promotion in a new city and you need to move. Some changes are more personal, having a baby is a life experience that may throw you into the Kubler-Ross Model.

Having a Baby
Denial – “No way, we only did it that one time.”
Anger – “I spent my entire 20s trying not to get pregnant!”
Bargaining – “Ok, if I can get my debt paid down, I won’t need to go back to work and I can be a stay at home Mom for a while.”
Depression – “My whole life is going to be different. I’m not ready to be a mom. Why me? Why now?”
Acceptance – “Ok. Let’s do this. I’m going to be an awesome mom.”

When I discovered that I was pregnant, the shock overwhelmed me. My relationship had hit about the two and half year mark. Unfortunately, it had just become clear that he was not going to be a good husband and my plan was to break things off. Birth control failed and I found myself in Denial that I was pregnant. I spent many month Angry at myself for creating a less than ideal home situation to raise a child in, alone. But I made a choice to stay unmarried because the father of my child cheated on my before I was pregnant and while I was pregnant. The Bargaining I did was with myself, to bust my ass in my career to be able to provide a stable home for my child, as a single mom. Depression and sadness and even loneliness would come and go but Accepting my responsibilities to be a mom came very quickly.

I did fear losing my independence and waistline. My pregnancy came in my late 20s, during the stage of life where I had a job, good benefits and access to all the dance clubs in LA and Hollywood. I hadn’t planned on shifting my priorities to being a mom. The loss of that independence did not impact my happiness once my daughter arrived. I haven’t quite caught my breath yet but being blessed to be her mom is the best change that has ever happened to me.

And now, at work, the organization faces a change of zip code times four. Consolidating four separate headquarters locations on to one property is a change and may feel like a loss. People at work are moving in and out of the five stages of loss at a frenetic pace. Hopefully, talking through the Kubler-Ross Model provides support, clarity, and comfort to my fellow employees. People don’t fear change, they fear loss.

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