Why Stages of Grieving Are an Excuse for Inept Change Management

Monday, February 15th, 2010

I got a call a couple of weeks ago. An organization wanted a speaker to talk about change. Not how to lead it, but how to convince people that everything would be fine once they went through the stages of grieving.

That call got me thinking. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified stages of grieving in dying patients – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance or DABDA for short.)

So, shouldn’t we be worried if the leaders of an organization assume that the change they are about to embark on is a lot like death? Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that something is wrong with this change?

I’m sure that organization found someone who was delighted to tell the employees that they were just going through a natural process and once they realized that someone had moved their cheese, all would be OK. These “blame the victim” approaches to leading change have been around for quite some time – and they are dangerous. They make two deadly assumptions: 1. The leaders are always right; therefore, all ideas that start from the top are good, and 2. People are pawns in the larger game, and they just need to get used to it.

But, there are other assumptions that some leaders make: 1. Leading organizational change requires the support, engagement, and leadership of people at all levels of the organization,  2. People want to be involved in decisions that affect their lives, and 3. As adults, most can handle the truth about the conditions that make change a necessity.

In Scientific American Mind (March/April, 2010, pages 48 and 49,) an article busts the myth that DABDA accurately reflects the process that most dying people go through. Some skip some of the steps, others go through them in another order. DABDA is used to counsel and support loved ones of those who have died, but research shows that not everyone experience distress or depression when a loved one dies. Maybe it is time for change management experts and Human Resource departments to kill off DABDA. That should send them into denial.