The Change Curve (also known as the Kubler Ross change curve) is a highly acclaimed and compelling model explaining how people behave and react to change and upheaval.
Even when we can see the benefits of change (and we might not always agree on those benefits), it can be difficult to instigate, process and accept.
The Change Curve (developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in relation to grief) is a model now widely used in business, with a number of research papers supporting its applicability in industry. It can help leaders predict how people might adapt to change, so that they can provide the most appropriate support to help with the transition.
In this article, we'll outline the stages in the Kubler Ross model and explain how understanding Belbin Team Roles can help you to approach change within your team. Armed with both methodologies, leaders can understand how different people react to change and facilitate the process to make adapting to a new situation easier for everyone.
We’ll be asking: What are the stages of the change curve? And: How can the concept be integrated with Belbin Team Roles? Our download, 'Belbin and the Change Curve', provides more in-depth information on combining the two methodologies.
The change curve stages
There are six stages most people go through in responding to change. At each stage in the curve, they will experience different emotions. These are: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and are based on the 5 stages of grief in the book ‘On Death and Dying’ by Elisabeth Kübler Ross.
These stages vary from person to person. They may not occur in the ‘right’ order, or even sequentially as outlined below - it’s possible for people to return to a prior stage if it is incomplete.
- Stage 1 - Shock
When change is first announced, people start off in shock. They might feel numb and unable to react in the first instance.
- Stage 2 - Denial
It may take time for people to process the new information and consider its ramifications. During this time, they may behave as though the change is not taking place or is not imminent. They may refuse to engage with the reality of the situation. It is often a stressful and difficult stage for all concerned.
- Stage 3 - Anger
When the reality of the situation can no longer be denied, people may become angry. This anger might be directed at themselves, or others. They might disregard the rules, disengage or lash out and seek to blame other people as a defence mechanism against the discomfort. Of all the change curve emotions, this one has perhaps the greatest potential to cause damage in team relationships.
- Stage 4 - Bargaining
In the fourth stage, we began to engage with the change, but not in a constructive way. People bargain or look for trade-offs. Their suggestions might be impractical or unrealistic and are a means of seeking to manage the change so that it does not affect them adversely. In other words, there’s still an element of denial in their approach.
At work, this might mean that people adopt some parts of a new strategy (those that require least adapting) but don’t really engage with the change as a whole.
- Stage 5 - Depression
This is the lowest emotional point in the change curve. People are likely to be experiencing loss, doubt and confusion as well as fear, regret and even guilt. It may depend on the individual as to how this manifests itself at work, but at this stage, people might become withdrawn and disengaged, and have difficulty focusing on work. They might begin to question how their job might look in view of the changes, and whether they can continue in their role.
- Stage 6 - Acceptance
At this stage, people stop focusing on what has been lost. They begin to rationalise and take steps towards adapting to the change. This stage often sees a rise in morale, engagement and performance. These are positive signs, but remember that it is possible for people to regress to an earlier stage at any time.
- Stage 7 - Problem-solving
By the end of the process, people are not only resigned to the change, but are actively committed to it. They might test and explore different elements of the new ways of working. They become engaged in solving problems that the change may have created and are looking for solutions to move things forward.
New ways of working become commonplace and individuals can see the benefits of the changes for themselves, such as increased productivity or more effective working practices. It is only at this stage that the organisation begins to see the return on investment (ROI) for making changes.
Whilst the change curve model consists of a standard set of emotional responses, our approach and priorities at work (for example, our Belbin Team Roles) can influence how we experience and progress through the curve and what kind of help we might require at each stage.
Embarking on organisational change
Organisational change is a huge undertaking. Often, focusing on logistical concerns can mean that the ‘people’ aspects are neglected. But change is not quantified by logistics, but in terms of hearts and minds. Change happens not just on paper, but because people instigate it, champion it, and adapt to it.
Too often, organizations focus on the expense of the project in terms of logistics and targets, and ignore the significant loss of revenue that will occur if its people never fully embrace the new way of working.
Those initiating the change may expect colleagues to buy in and share their enthusiasm. But changes – even those designed to benefit the individual and the organisation – can be traumatic, engendering feelings of loss of control, disempowerment and fear. A positive change for one person might mean a loss of status or security for another. Some might simply not be sold on the benefits, and may be reluctant to part with old ways, so they simply ignore the communications and the training and continue with the status quo.
No matter how good the new systems and processes may be, if it doesn’t have buy-in from your teams, business improvement and ROI is unlikely to follow. The disruption of changing things over gives way to unease and murmurs – or outpourings – of discontent.
The personal transition for each individual is inextricably linked to the project as a whole – only when individuals have transitioned through the various stages of the curve can the organisation begin to see the beneficial effects of making the change.
The easier it is for people to make their transition through the change curve, the greater the organization’s likelihood of success in the new venture.
How to manage your emotions through the change curve
No matter how resilient someone may be, we all progress through the change curve when faced with significant changes to the way we work. It is important to be honest and patient with yourself, especially when you experience setbacks. The more practised you become with adapting to a particular kind of change, the easier it will be to overcome on the next occasion, and the more quickly you will progress through the change curve.
Having an awareness of the stages and assessing where you are is a great place to start. Knowing that you can progress to a state of acceptance can be reassuring when you are experiencing the stages at the bottom of the curve.
Change curve leadership
It isn’t enough to understand or explain the various stages of the change curve. Individuals will need to be helped through each stage.
Team leaders can coach their teams through the change curve. The objective is to minimise the negative impact of the change by making the curve shallower and narrower.
Leading through the change curve is complex because team members may be at different stages at a given time, and may require different support in order to move towards acceptance. People who have known about the change from an early stage are likely to be more accepting than those who are the last to know.
- Don’t treat everyone the same
It’s really easy to look at the change curve and see it as a linear process, with each team member plotted neatly on it, but this doesn’t reflect reality.
It’s important not to make assumptions about where people may be on the curve, or that everyone will have the same worries. One person may be concerned about mastering the technical challenges of a new procedure whilst another is worried about their job security, as the procedure will eliminate the need for part of their role.
- Sell the benefits of change
Foster a sense of ownership and inclusion by talking about the positives that the change will bring about. Identify the obstacles that it will help overcome and relate them to people’s work day. Where possible, involve people in the rationale behind it.
- Find the right communication style
Resource Investigators are likely to respond enthusiastically to new prospects and possibilities, creating buzz around the change. By contrast, Monitor Evaluators will need time to reflect and may come back later with searching questions. Once you know the Team Role make-up of your team members (by having them complete the Belbin Self-Perception Inventory and receiving their Belbin Reports), you’ll be well placed to provide the right communications at the right time.
- Ensure that training is in place
In order to embrace a new way of working, people will need to feel confident that they understand what is expected of them and can fulfil their role. It’s crucial to ensure that training is thorough, timely and allows time for questions and practice, so that people feel comfortable with the new order.
- Celebrate success
Remember that it’s really important to celebrate your success at the end. It isn’t just a case of acknowledging everyone’s hard work in bringing changes about and navigating the curve. It’s also a way of embedding hard-won successes in corporate memory, so that adaptability is accepted as part of the organisation’s DNA. With this outlook, people will be all the more ready for the change the next time it comes around.
When you reach the end of the curve and are in a period of reflection, that's the best time to revisit Belbin. You can ask individuals to complete an Individual report to compare to an earlier assessment. Have their working styles changed? Are there any manageable roles (latent talents) that have come to the fore? If so, how might you harness these new skills?
Next, it’s time to put all the individual jigsaw pieces together, to produce a Team report. This gives a picture of the team as a whole, including any Team Role gaps or overlaps which might have arisen as a result of the changes. It’s a great discussion starter and an opportunity for the team to debrief on their individual experiences of the change curve and how these affected the team as a whole.
This helps to ensure that when the next change comes around, the team is more experienced in the peaks and troughs of the change curve and more prepared to embrace change.
Belbin and the Change Curve
Everyone has a different baseline when it comes to accepting change. In Belbin Team Role terms, Plants are likely to be on board if the change stems from their own idea. Resource Investigators and Shapers are likely to be the most comfortable with change, because they find it exciting and enjoy the prospect of new opportunities and visible progress.
On the other hand, conservative, process-oriented Implementers are likely to struggle most with changes which will threaten their efficient ways of working, at least in the short term. Monitor Evaluators are unlikely to respond with high emotion, but may be sceptical if they are yet to be convinced of the benefits of the change.
Having the tools to communicate with, and support, others can help managers and leaders who are coaching people through the change curve. If we understand someone’s Team Roles -- their approach and priorities – and our own, we are better able to tailor our leadership style or coaching style to help coach them through the curve.
Which Team Roles are most likely to vocalise their anger? Which might tend to skip through the stages only to go back and repeat them later?