Terres Inconnue


Food for thought

Why and how the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is used in business/companies ?

In collaboration with Dominique PETERSON

Since the eighties, companies have taken an interest in « change management ». This trend is related to the fact that the pace/speed of change in our world is rising. In other words, change is accelerating. To survive and develop, companies need to adapt to their environment as fast as possible. Therefore the ability to adapt efficiently and quickly to change has become a strategic competence.
Yet, change almost consistently provokes resistance to change. Not only in companies: we all react to change in our everyday lives – from the smallest changes (e.g. the shelves’ organisation in our supermarket) to the most radical (e.g. moving abroad, divorcing…).
In companies, we get new software, new furniture, promotions… but also changes in location, new strategies, even mergers or acquisitions.

Of course, all changes are not imposed upon us. But even when we decide to change, there can be strong unforeseen reactions. For example, having a child is, in most cases, a deliberate act. However, the new mother can sometimes feel confused, incompetent or even suffer from post-partum depression. Likewise, when you are promoted, it is usually because you were particularly competent. However, you can feel insecure, and maybe fear to be incompetent in your new position. You might feel guilty of not being up to the task. It’s not easy to share these negative reactions to your colleagues and friends who expect you to celebrate!

To manage change is to understand the process that the members of your team are going through and to help them deal with their natural reactions to change.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught us about the steps to cross before accepting change. It takes time before an announced change truly becomes reality for us. It’s the struggle between Chronos (the time that flows, once a seed has been planted) and Kaïros (the time needed for things to happen, to be able to harvest).
Many change curve models have been adapted from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work on grief and mourning.

We distinguish five stages that we ask managers to be aware of:
1. The announcement is the moment when we learn that we are going to leave our current situation to go towards a new targeted situation
2. Next is a stage of separation from the previous situation: 90% of us first experience change as something negative, like we are losing something.
3. Then comes the stage of confusion, a moment when we feel we’ve lost our bearings, a wobbly moment, with a loss of focus, and even isolation and fear. We start to ask ourselves: Am I up to it? Will I make it?
4. At the end of this dark tunnel we reach the rebirth stage: a moment of innovation, experimentation when we start rebuilding the confidence in our ability to integrate the change.
5. And eventually comes the integration stage: the targeted situation becomes an accepted reality that we have learned to fully deal with. It is a time of celebration and consolidation that we unfortunately often overlook since a new change is always sneaking up…

In companies, managers often communicate on changes in a very positive and rational way, for the survival or growth of the company. They less often allow themselves to address the emotional aspects that come with every change.
Often managers even close the door to criticism, negative remarks and the expression of emotions. This behaviour alienates them from those who are experiencing the change and increases their feeling of being misunderstood. This is in fact counter-productive since it tends to create rigidity and justifies resistance to change. 

Managers can help people make a smooth transition through the steps of change:
1. At the announcement of the targeted change, be firm on the project’s vision and purpose and communicate strongly on the necessity to face the new reality. Plan to accompany the transition. Organize symbolic actions marking the end of the previous situation
2. During the separation phase, take time to listen and understand resistance, specify what will change and what won’t, promote how much current achievements were due to previous changes.
3. To help go through the confusion stage, be present in the field, know how to adapt the rhythm of the transition, offer training or coaching, open the range of possibilities
4. The rebirth phase needs assertiveness: promote the first results, give positive feedback, specify new objectives, and don’t forget to gather the teams together and celebrate the new era to come
5. Don’t lose your focus during the integration phase: it is essential to make sure all the previous stages have been sufficiently « rooted » so that the collective won’t drift back to its old habits.

When working with managers on change, we ask them to focus on the three following questions: “In the change you are experiencing today :

  • At what stage are you in now ?
  • And what about the members of your team ?
  • How can you adapt your management to each team member’s needs ?”


In conclusion, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work is a remarkable contribution to management as it brings light to what managers and their teams need to live through when they face the changes that can be indeed quite brutal in today’s time.