Should We Let the Change Curve Rest in Peace?

A lot has been written about why change programmes fail. But the fact that some of the fundamental things change managers are taught about change are decidedly dodgy often evades blame.

You don’t have to be in any kind of management training for very long until someone starts talking about the change curve. This is the idea that people who experience any kind of organisational change go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression before they reach acceptance of the change and potentially even enthusiasm. While they are going through these stages they feel progressively worse about the change, so the theory goes, though ultimately – after they reach the acceptance stage – they will be happier. The work of the skilled few who are change managers then is gently to nudge the naturally “change resistant” many all the way along to the sunny uplands of change acceptance.

The change curve is based on the work of the Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who described the “five stages of grief” in her bestseller On Death and Dying. I’m sure she did some good things to raise awareness of the increasingly depersonalised treatment of dying patients in the modern world. (Among other things, she described how patients more or less disappeared as individuals among the machines they were linked up to, with the medical establishment caring more about the data they could read off the machines than about the needs of the patient. This was in 1969, five years before Robert Nozick envisaged human beings as indeterminate blobs hooked up to experience machines.) I’m sure she also did some good things for hospice care and for grief counselling.

But the psychological establishment has long been suspicious of her teachings. (I would know. My mother told me.) The mundane reason for that was that her findings about the five stages weren’t replicable in other studies. Even she herself regretted later in life that she had expressed the five stages as a relatively rigorous framework for grieving and said it wasn’t meant like that. Many grieving people, according to her later statements only go through at most two of the five stages, or so.

But there was plenty of other stuff of which to be suspicious. At some point in the seventies she started believing that death wasn’t really a thing and arranged for spiritual mediums to channel communications with the dead at her care centre Shanti Nilaya (Indian names must have helped credibility in the seventies). At least one of her favoured mediums got into trouble for sexual misdemeanours. (These took place during his sessions to put widows in touch with their deceased husbands.) When someone flicked a light switch during one of these sessions that clearly needed to be held in the dark, the medium turned out to be presiding over the whole thing entirely naked with the exception of a turban on his head. (That was probably around the same time at which the Tibetan monk, spiritual master, alcoholic and chaos merchant Chögyam Trungpa aimed to help people in their spiritual development by forcing them to strip naked during parties.)

Despite the fact that the model of the five stages of grieving was disowned by its own creator as a rigorously applicable model and denounced by experts more widely, it lingers on in management training, like the spirit of a dead person haunting the living.

Now, it could be argued that, even if it doesn’t apply to the dying or the grieving, it still happens to apply quite well to those experiencing organisational change. But I don’t believe anyone has provided any empirical evidence for that. The model is only ever invoked with its Kübler-Rossian credentials even after those have expired. Even if it wasn’t for that, there are other reasons we should be suspicious of it:

First, a kind of obvious point, that experiencing organisational change, that is to say, in most cases, getting used to new processes, using different systems or working under a changed culture is in no way like the death of a friend or relative. We could quaintly imagine some people so attached to the way they do their jobs that any change feels like a death but I don’t think there’s anything in that. It’a a pretty patronising rationalisation of why the “change resistant” are the way they are. The death of a person in pretty absolute. It doesn’t even make sense to say change – for some people – is like the death of a loved one, though less so. When it comes to the death of a person, then if something seems quantitatively less so, it’s probably qualitatively different.

Second, perhaps the main point, change is dynamic. It’s an illusion to think that there is a point at which you can say, the change has happened, now it’s time for everyone just to move along the change curve and embrace it. Change has to keep happening through ongoing conversations and communication, through ongoing effort to implement it, otherwise it won’t happen.

Take, for example, change in the form of political events. A country has decided in a referendum by a relatively narrow margin to leave a political, economic and cultural union it had been part of, and helped construct, for decades. While the referendum result is binding on everyone, it would be wrong and undemocratic to expect that those who argued against this change should just stop having their views and beliefs. It would be wrong to expect them not to want to test the legal, economic and political implications. It would be wrong to expect them not to question every detail of future policy on matters such as immigration, trade, the environment and so on. While they can be asked to accept the outcome of the democratically held referendum and must do so, clearly we would expect them to want to ensure that their values and interests are represented in the way that the decision to change course is implemented over years to come.

Neither would we expect those on the “winning” side simply to be able to sit back and see the change happen. They will have to continue to make the case, flesh out the vision for the future, solve a myriad technical issues and continue to fight for the optimal interpretation of the expressed will of the people. They are expected to be able to show that their plans are legal, that they can offer a compelling idea of the future and to meet all of the concerns they now face. They need to engage people widely, make use of a broad range of talents and keep providing leadership. They need to do all of these things, rather than spend time trying to jog some people along a change curve, imagining that it is merely the psychological hang-ups of those who hold opposed views that keep them stuck on a downward change curve and prevent them from embracing the change.

While this is a macrocosm of fairly big political change, the same would also apply in the microcosm of organisational change. The job of the change manager starts, it doesn’t end, with the decision to make changes, or even with the development of a positive vision for a future end state. He or she needs to keep communicating the rationale for change, engage people in working out the detailed problems and solutions that will be encountered, have answers to questions or a way to work them out.

Of course it is much easier to just frame the whole situation as a case of change enthusiasts being hampered by the change resistant who are stuck in one of a standard five stages. But to do that would be to misunderstand the task of driving change until it is implemented.

I'd love to know what you think about this!