Kubler-Ross Change Curve

Mastering Business Change Management with the Kubler-Ross Change Curve

Change is one of those constants in the realm of business that we can’t escape. But hey, that’s where the magic happens, right? Embracing change, really getting it, and steering its course can make or break a company. This article underscores the fact that ensuring employees are heard, and treated as an integral part of the change is critical.

To follow up on my previous writings on the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, I wanted to expand on the theory of how it is applicable to the process of change in business. Change is inevitable, especially in the business world. With the rapid pace of technological advancements and shifting market dynamics, businesses must adapt to survive and thrive. However, managing change effectively remains a significant challenge for many organisations. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 70% of all changes attempted in organisations fail. This high failure rate underscores the need for effective change management strategies.

…success remains the exception, not the rule. While we’ve known for years that a comprehensive approach to organisational transformation is more conducive to lasting change, the average success rate has remained persistently low. Less than one-third of respondents—all of whom had been part of a transformation in the past five years—say their companies’ transformations have been successful at both improving organisational performance and sustaining those improvements over time.” – McKinsey & Company

There’s a strategy that’s interesting in this discussion – the Kubler-Ross Change Curve. At first, this model was all about explaining the stages of grief, but guess what? It’s found a new gig in the world of business. We’re talking about understanding and handling the human side of change in a professional setting. The Kubler-Ross Change Curve is like a roadmap for decoding how folks in your organisation handle change. Get this right, and you’ll be the maestro of transitions. This model could well be the secret sauce for boosting the success rate of your change initiatives.

Understanding change management in business

Change management is a critical aspect of any business strategy. It refers to the process, tools, and techniques used to manage the people side of change and achieve the required business outcomes. In essence, it’s about transitioning individuals, teams, and organisations from their current state to a desired future state.

Business change, on the other hand, can be triggered by various factors such as technological advancements, market competition, regulatory requirements, or organisational restructuring. These changes can impact the way business is conducted, requiring alterations in processes, systems, job roles, or even organisational structures.

Change Curve - The Kubler-Ross Change Curve and how it is applicable to the process of change in business.

The importance of change management cannot be overstated. Effective change management ensures that changes are smoothly and successfully implemented, and that the lasting benefits of change are achieved. The more effectively you manage change, the more likely you are to stay competitive. It helps employees understand, commit to, accept, and embrace changes in their current business environment.

Moreover, effective change management can mitigate resistance to change, improve morale, reduce turnover, and increase productivity. It also provides a sense of direction, reduces uncertainty, and increases the likelihood of achieving business goals. Therefore, mastering change management is crucial for businesses to adapt, survive, and thrive in today’s dynamic business environment.

Introduction to the Kubler-Ross Change Curve

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve, originally developed to explain the stages of grief, has found its application in various fields, including business change management. This model provides a structured and predictable sequence of stages individuals go through as they adjust to change.

The Change Curve consists of five key stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, often abbreviated as DABDA. Each stage represents a different reaction to change, from initial resistance to eventual acceptance.

  1. Denial: This is the first stage where individuals refuse to accept that change is happening. They may seem oblivious to the reality of the situation.

  2. Anger: As the reality of change sets in, individuals may react with anger or frustration. They might blame others for the change or express their dissatisfaction.

  3. Bargaining: At this stage, individuals try to negotiate or bargain to avoid the change. They might look for ways to delay or minimise the impact of the change.

  4. Depression: This stage is characterised by feelings of overwhelm, helplessness, and despair as individuals begin to realise the full impact of the change.

  5. Acceptance: The final stage is when individuals start accepting the change, exploring new possibilities, and moving forward.

In the context of business change management, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve helps managers understand how employees might react to organisational changes. By recognising these stages, managers can better support their teams through the transition, ensuring smoother implementation of changes.

Applying the Kubler-Ross Change Curve in business change management

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve, originally designed to illustrate the stages of grief, has found a significant place in the business world. It is now widely utilised as a tool for managing organisational change. The model’s five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – can be adapted to understand and manage employees’ reactions to significant changes in the business environment.

Utilising the Change Curve in business change management involves identifying where your team or organisation is on the curve at any given time. This understanding allows managers to tailor their communication and support strategies to meet the needs of their teams effectively. For instance, during the denial stage, it’s crucial to provide clear and consistent information about the change. In contrast, the acceptance stage may require more focus on training and development to equip employees with the skills needed for the new situation.

Adapting the Change Curve to your specific business context is also essential. Not all changes are the same, and not all teams will react in the same way. Some might move quickly through the stages, while others may get stuck at a particular point. By being flexible and responsive, you can help guide your team through the process more smoothly.

The benefits of using the Change Curve in business change management are numerous. Firstly, it provides a framework for understanding reactions to change, which can often seem irrational or unpredictable. Secondly, it helps managers anticipate potential issues and plan accordingly, reducing the risk of productivity loss or employee turnover. Finally, by supporting employees through the change process, businesses can foster a culture of resilience and adaptability, crucial in today’s fast-paced business environment.

Examples of successful implementation of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve

Here’s a few examples to provide a clearer understanding of how the Kubler-Ross Change Curve has been successfully implemented in business change management.

One such example is a multinational corporation facing significant resistance when introducing a new digital platform to replace their outdated systems. The company utilises the Kubler-Ross Change Curve to anticipate and manage employee reactions. Initially, employees were in denial about the need for a new system, and bargaining comes in when employees suggest doubling down on old platform upgrades… but through effective communication and training, they moved towards acceptance and integration of the new platform. This case study highlights the effectiveness of the Change Curve in managing transitions and reducing resistance.

Or take a retail giant undergoing a major rebranding. The company used the Kubler-Ross Change Curve to guide their employees through the stages of change, from shock and denial to acceptance and commitment. By acknowledging the emotional journey associated with change, the company is able to minimise disruption and maintain productivity during the transition period.

These examples underscore the value of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve in facilitating effective change management. By understanding and addressing the emotional responses to change, businesses can ensure smoother transitions and more successful outcomes.

Real world examples and case studies

IBM: In the 1990s, IBM underwent a significant business change by shifting its focus from hardware to software and services. This change was driven by the recognition that the company’s traditional business model was becoming obsolete, and that it needed to adapt to remain competitive. The change involved significant layoffs and restructuring, which caused a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety among employees. In a study conducted by IBM, it was found that almost 1,400 individuals responsible for designing, creating, or implementing change experienced anxiety during the process.

Microsoft: In the 2010s, Microsoft underwent a significant business change by shifting its focus from traditional software products to cloud-based services. This change was driven by the recognition that the company’s traditional business model was becoming obsolete, and that it needed to adapt to remain competitive. The change involved significant investments in technology and acquisitions. On the other side of this, in a press release from 2023, Microsoft reported that server products and cloud services revenue increased 17% driven by Azure and other cloud services revenue growth. In May 2023, this was balanced for employee sentiment, as Microsoft announced that it would not raise salaries for full-time employees and would tighten its bonus and stock award budget. However, there was some balance: the company did maintain its bonus and stock award budget and continued to invest in its employees through promotions.

Understanding Microsoft's Digital Transformation
Credit: Microsoft – Understanding Microsoft’s Digital Transformation


Google: In 2022, Google employees were reported to be bracing for a cost-cutting drive, which caused anxiety to mount among the workforce. This suggests that employees were openly discussing and preparing for potential changes that could impact their jobs and the company as a whole. CFO Ruth Porat sent a memo to employees informing them of the cost-cutting measures, which included reducing food waste and closing some of the on-campus cafes. The company also announced plans to trim real estate expenditures, travel costs, and perks before pursuing layoffs. Whilst on the face of it, this was bad news, there was some indication that Google were going to look at other avenues before the layoffs. One would imagine a range of emotions felt by the employees in this period. Google’s financial performance in 2022 was still successful. The company reported a 10 percent rise in turnover to $282.83 billion and a net income of $59.97 billion.

Challenges and solutions in implementing the Change Curve model

Implementing the Kubler-Ross Change Curve model in business change management is not without its challenges. One of the most common obstacles is resistance from employees, who may be uncomfortable with change and fear the unknown. This can lead to decreased productivity and morale, creating a significant hurdle for managers or businesses to overcome.

Another challenge lies in communication. It’s crucial to effectively communicate the reasons for the change, the benefits it will bring, and how it will be implemented. However, this can often be easier said than done. Miscommunication or lack of information can lead to confusion, further resistance, and even rumours that can harm the change process.

Moreover, implementing the Change Curve model requires a thorough understanding of the model itself. Each stage of the curve – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – needs to be managed carefully. Failing to do so can result in prolonged periods of negative emotions among employees, hindering the change process.

Despite these challenges, there are solutions available to facilitate the implementation of the Change Curve model. Firstly, resistance from employees can be mitigated through involvement and engagement. By involving employees in the change process and valuing their input, they are more likely to accept and support the change.

Effective communication is also key. Regular updates about the progress of the change, clear explanations of the reasons behind it, and open forums for questions and discussions can help to prevent confusion and rumours.

Lastly, training and education about the Change Curve model can ensure that it is implemented effectively. This could involve workshops, seminars, or even one-on-one coaching sessions. With a solid understanding of the model, managers can guide their teams through each stage of the curve, helping them to navigate their emotions and ultimately embrace the change.

In conclusion, while there are challenges in implementing the Change Curve model, these can be overcome with effective strategies and a proactive approach. By doing so, businesses can successfully manage change and reap the benefits that it brings.

Mastering the art of change management is a critical skill for any business leader. The Kubler-Ross Change Curve offers an interesting framework to understand and navigate through the emotional journey that accompanies significant changes in an organisation. By understanding this model, leaders can better anticipate reactions, manage expectations, and guide their teams through the transition process more effectively.

The application of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve in business change management can prove successful in numerous applications. However, it’s important to remember that each organisation is unique, and challenges may arise during implementation. Overcoming these obstacles requires adaptability, patience, and a deep understanding of the model’s principles.

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