Navigating Business Transformation: The Stages of Change

Navigating Business Transformation: The Stages of Change

May 6, 2024

Change management is an essential process for ensuring that a business can adapt to new challenges and seize new opportunities. Much as individuals seem to go through a series of emotions and behaviors following a personal loss, organizations and their members often experience a set of similar stages in response to significant change, such as mergers and acquisitions, periods of rapid growth, rebranding, and senior leadership transitions.

In this post, we will explore how the stages of change in a business setting—manic excitement, genuine confusion, bargaining, willful confusion, and acceptance—parallel the widely-accepted stages of grief.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the concept of identifiable stages of grief in her book, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The Stages of Change Management

Stage 1: Manic Excitement (vs. Denial)

Manic excitement is often the initial reaction to change. This stage can be compared to the denial phase of grief, where the reality of loss is hard to accept. In a business context, this excitement is not about refusing to accept change, but about having an overly optimistic and sometimes unrealistic expectation of how the change will play out. Flashy rollouts that are supposed to stoke excitement instead often breed a sense of dread. Just as an individual might deny the impact of a loss, an organization might either overlook the challenges that accompany the transformation or incorrectly assume that branded swag will overcome them. Such excitement, however, can serve as an important motivator and build the momentum needed for change.

Stage 2: Genuine Confusion (vs. Anger)

The transition to genuine confusion aligns with the anger stage of grief, as the initial excitement gives way to a realization that change is complex and far-reaching. Employees may struggle to understand new processes or strategies and feel overwhelmed by the pace or direction of change. This may lead to frustration and even resistance, much as an individual might express anger in grief. It is during this phase that clear communication and support from leadership are crucial to guide team members through uncertainty.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Bargaining is present both in grief and in change management. It is a natural reflex to try to regain control or return to the familiar. In an organizational change framework, bargaining might manifest as negotiations between management and employees regarding the implementation or pacing of change. Individuals may seek compromises or promises to retain aspects of the previous status quo. This stage can be both constructive and obstructive, as it can help identify the most significant pain points but also potentially impede progress if not managed effectively.

Stage 4: Willful Confusion (vs. Depression)

Willful confusion can be likened to depression stage of grief. It represents a deeper level of resistance where individuals are aware of the change but choose to selectively ignore or actively undermine it. This emotional turmoil might cause a dip in productivity and morale, similar to the feelings of sadness and hopelessness observed in the grieving process. This is the stage where empathetic leadership and targeted interventions are necessary to prevent change initiatives from stalling or failing.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Finally, acceptance signifies a turning point in both the stages of grief and change. It means moving past emotional upheaval and embracing the new reality. In business transformation, acceptance is marked by individuals and teams adapting their work processes and behaviors to align with the new direction. It is a constructive phase, informed by lessons learned through the preceding stages, and signals the formation of a new norm.

Navigating the Stages of Change

Understanding these parallels between the stages of change management and the stages of grief allows business leaders to more empathically navigate organizational transformations. Recognizing that emotional responses are natural and to be expected can help in strategizing appropriate interventions to facilitate a smoother transition and lead the team through each stage effectively.

REDW’s expert team of Human Resources and Compensation consultants appreciates that the leadership style of change agents within organizations may not always perfectly align with the more “touchy feely” leadership style needed to navigate the complex emotions described above, nor does an organization undergoing a temporary transition need to permanently employ a team with those skills.

Consider engaging our team of people experts to act as an extension of your team able to offer valuable insights into employment law compliance and best practices that drive team member engagement and buy-in throughout the stages of change. 

Change, like grief, is an inescapable part of life and business; the difference in outcomes often lies in how organizations manage the journey. Acknowledging the emotions and behaviors that surface during this process is critical not only to moving forward, but also to emerging stronger and better adapted for the future. We look forward to the opportunity to assist you.

Our HR Consulting practice area offers a wide variety of engagements customized to your needs, including banks of hours that you can utilize as-needed, ongoing monthly support arrangements, or flat fee projects like compensation and classification studies, organizational and/or human resources assessments, employee handbooks, position description updates, and bespoke in-person, virtual, or pre-recorded training seminars.

Contact REDW’s trusted HR Consulting professionals today. We’re here to make change management easier for you and your team.

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