Forget About the Stages of Death and Dying; They Are Wrong and a Distraction
I am tired of hearing Kubler-Ross’ stages of grieving (or stages of death and dying) used to explain why people resist large organizational changes. The model just doesn’t fit and it promotes poor leadership. The model can allow leaders to shrug their shoulders and proclaim, “What can I do? They’ve got to work through the stages.” Kubler-Ross wrote about these stages in her book, Death and Dying to explain what most people go through when they face terminal illness or catastrophic loss. And it probably is a helpful framework when talking about actual death.
But if people believe that your organizational change is the same as a terminal illness or a catastrophic loss, then (with a few exceptions like a company about to close its doors) you are doing something seriously wrong.
People don’t have to experience anger, denial, and so forth if the change is handled well. By the way, her research on these stages is focused on individuals. As far as I can tell, there has been no research on the frequency of these stages occurring in organizational change. But her work gets mentioned so often that the stages of death and dying are now taken as just the way things are. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In spite of the popularity of Jim Collins’ fine landmark book, Good to Great (2002), readers seem to miss a point that he makes. When his researchers asked people in great companies how they managed change, they didn’t know. On deeper examination, his team found that the great companies did such a good job of keeping people informed, that otherwise “catastrophic” change never took hold. For example, people could see why a major new enterprise-wide software system made sense given their organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
The people who devised the notion of Open Book Management got it right. Give people the numbers that drive the business and make sure they can see how their specific contribution can affect those numbers every day and then watch productivity zoom.
Many of the large-systems change approaches that put anywhere from 100 to 500 people in a room to plan change, focus on improving things – and not dwelling on issues like denial, anger and the like.
There is plenty of evidence that people do not need to experience denial, anger, rationalization, or dealing during organizational change. Trotting out the stages of death and dying is just an excuse for leading in ways that fail to engage people’s hearts and minds.