Even when a change is good for your business, you will have some employees who believe that the change will negatively affect them. That belief makes managing the change a lot harder for you as a leader.
To understand what your employees are going through and how to help them manage a change they perceive as negative, we use the change curve below, based on the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to discuss the grieving process that terminally-ill patients experience. Business have embraced this model because they have observed similar reactions when a change occurs at work.
To illustrate the stages that individuals or teams go through when facing a change they perceive as negative, consider the case of a large public company in the Eastern United States doing business in a regulated industry. The company’s workforce was non-union. The management team took pride in the way they treated their colleagues. Unfortunately, a key way they had maintained non-union status was by giving employees the richest salary and benefits package in its industry.
Now, the company’s industry was facing deregulation and the prospect of much more intense competition. The management team realized that its high-pay package would put it at a competitive disadvantage and chose to conduct a comparative compensation analysis. They found out, to no one’s surprise, that only 10% of jobs within the organization were competitive with similar jobs in other companies. The other 90% were paid at a higher level.
Compensation consultants brought in by the client designed a new set of pay scales. They recommended that people who were beyond the maximum pay for any particular job would not receive increases until the market “caught up” with the salaries. Essentially, no one took a pay cut, but many people could look forward to a long time without a salary increase.
Understandably, this was considered a negative change by employees. They said: “They’ll never do it!” “They better not try that!” “Don’t worry about it; it’ll never happen.” These statements are examples of the Denial stage of the model.
It soon became clear to people that this was not an empty rumor: the company’s leadership team was serious about the change. Employees became very Angry. They said, “I’ve been a loyal employee. I shouldn’t be treated like this!”
At this point, a group of employees formed a representative team to talk to senior management. Their goal was to Bargain to decrease the impact of the change. They said: “I’d be willing to give up X if I got Y from the company.” Employees were looking for a middle ground where they wouldn’t be hurt too badly, but where management could also be satisfied. However, this was not a time when any compromise was possible if the business was to remain viable.
Once people passed through the bargaining phase, they experienced a great deal of Fear. They said, “Oh no; this is going to happen. There is nothing I can do about it.” Employees felt very vulnerable and resigned to the outcome. This feeling of having no control over the change led to a period of Depressed feelings.
The employee team began to Explore the potential for union affiliation. They discovered that joining a union would eliminate their current pay and benefits package. They would have to negotiate new compensation terms from the ground up. In this process, employees recognized they were already making the highest salaries in the industry (25 to 30% more than anyone else), had more vacation time, more holidays, and enjoyed a whole host of other advantages under the current system.
Gradually, they began to see exactly what their situation was and realized that in many ways they were actually ahead of the game, new pay scales notwithstanding. This realization brought them to the final phase, that of Acceptance.
Therefore, when you are leading people through what is viewed as a negative change, draw upon the following skills:
- Avoid confrontation and conflict.
- Reinforce the reasons for and the end result of the change.
- Rely on the good will that has been built up in your relationship in the past.
- Listen and empathize.
- Let people vent.
- Don’t interfere unless their anger is destructive.
- Don’t take the anger personally! It’s not about you, it’s about the change and the chaos.
- Stand firm on the major items.
- Acknowledge the fear.
- Determine the true source of the fear.
- Increase communication to get the truth out as a reality check.
- If the person is acting like a victim, encourage them to take personal responsibility to face the change head on.
- Provide opportunities to explore.
- Encourage creative thinking.
- Reward and acknowledge progress.
- Ask “What did we learn?”
- Prepare them for the next change!
This blog is an excerpt from our book Leading on Purpose – learn more about leading change and other key leadership skills by purchasing your copy today!
 This model is based on the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, E. On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner, 1970, 1997.