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🫶Navigating Grief and Loss Amidst Organizational Change

behavior change change leadership grief resilience Mar 19, 2023
Change Leader Insights

No matter how much we try to prevent it, grief and loss are a part of organizational change. Even changes with clear benefits can be hard for employees to process because it requires them to let go of some aspects of how they do their jobs today to enable their future ways of working. On top of this, the vision and value for changing may not be as compelling as decision-makers think, largely because they failed to appreciate the level of comfort and competency employees have doing their jobs in the current state. 

Letting go isn’t easy. For many of us, our comfort zone at work is also our zone of expertise. We get so good at what we do that the work becomes second nature and our capabilities become a source of confidence. Change disrupts the pattern and requires fresh effort; no longer having all the answers can create self-doubt and send the subconscious mind spiraling. It's normal to experience a wide range of emotions, such as grief, anger, or frustration, when confronted with change at work.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, psychiatrist, and author of “On Death and Dying”, described the individual change process as a non-linear cycle that includes five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It's common for people to vacillate between emotions as they attempt to cope with and process their feelings about the change. Although Kubler-Ross initially developed the model to help people understand the emotions they may experience at the end of life, it has become a valuable framework for helping leaders understand the impact of change and develop empathy for employees during business transformations.

Another model commonly used to navigate organizational change, Bridges Transition Model, also highlights grief and loss during the individual change process, or stages of transition. In this model, the transition process starts with “an ending” because it marks the end of the current state. Employees must accept the loss of the old way of doing things before they can move into the “neutral zone”, which is where they begin to experiment with new beliefs and behaviors related to the change. This stage also is where people tend to get “stuck” if they don’t have the right mindset or support to fully let go of the old way of doing things. The final stage of transition is called “new beginnings” because the individual has begun to embrace a new way forward in the environment post change.

According to Anthony Casablanca, co-founder of GriefLeaders™, author of “The Dying Art of Leadership”, and recent Change Leader Insights guest, grief and loss are key drivers of change initiative failure, and that grief often gets mischaracterized as burnout, disengagement, or resistance to change. The other issue, says Casablanca, is that many implementation models ignore the science and the emotions of change, which further compounds the issue.

So, what are organizations to do? As a first step, Casablanca recommends leaders acknowledge employee grief due to change. Otherwise, they may experience “disenfranchised grief”, which is what happens when a person’s feelings of loss are not recognized. This can lead to resentment and frustration with the leadership team. The next step is to upskill and develop leaders, so they understand how to adapt their own approaches and meet employees where they are at.

When following a framework, be sure to use one that factors in people’s emotional needs. Apogy’s ART model for individual change, which stands for Aware, Ready, Trained, summarizes what people need to change their minds, hearts, and behaviors so they can both feel and be successful post change. ART starts with becoming aware of and understanding the need for change (mindset shift), feeling ready to change because they are supported and inspired (heart shift), and finally getting trained on how to change (behavior shift). Unless all these internal shifts occur, it will be hard for employees to overcome the grief and loss they feel initially when a change is introduced into the organization. 

How leaders execute on ART is where other process-driven frameworks come into play. However, change management does not replace what people need most during times of change: compassionate leaders who value employees beyond their contributions to the organization’s bottom line, advocate for better prioritization and pacing of change initiatives to avoid unnecessary overwhelm, and make it safe for people to appropriately express grief, sadness, and frustration without fear of it damaging their upward mobility or potential.

Understanding how to help employees navigate grief and loss amidst organizational change is a leadership imperative. Successfully supporting the emotional needs of employees can prevent costly delays, productivity declines, and turnover due to persistent, poorly executed changes. With the right mindset and human-centric interventions, organizations can reduce the duration and intensity of the individual change process and create environments where people and change thrive.

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