Leading Through the Grief of Change

A primary responsibility of leadership is to initiate and manage change.

Like many of my peers, I have eagerly embraced this role of change agent during my career. In fact, I like change – that I initiate.

On the other hand, I haven’t been so receptive of change when someone else is initiating it. My track record is pretty typical when another leader has initiated change that affects me. Getting in touch with this common reaction is helpful to guide others through the difficult process of change.

Most people are uncomfortable with change that someone else initiates, because change – even good change – often brings a sense of loss and grief. How leaders help their people navigate the grief of change often determines leadership success or failure.

Leadership and the Five Stages of Grief

The experience of change is akin to the loss and grief that accompany death. For when change occurs, something dies in order for something else to be born. The late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified the stages of grief associated with death and dying:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Sadness
  4. Rationalization
  5. Acceptance

The problem is that leaders tend to skip over the stages of grief and expect people to accept the new people or project or strategy or office layout immediately. Skipping stages can result in people getting stuck in their perceived loss and being unable to engage positively in the change.

Here are some ways to use this knowledge of the grief cycle to help people through the change process:

  • Embrace grief. Remember that grief during change is natural. By understanding the process of loss and grief, we can lead the change, instead of allowing resistance to the change to lead us.
  • Accept emotions. Grief is not talked about much in the workplace because it is an emotional reaction to loss, not an intellectual one. Leaders can encourage the change process and reduce resistance by creating safe environments for people to express their emotion.
  • Slow down. Resist the mantra that “speed is king.” It takes time for people to process the feelings associated with loss that comes with change.
  • Move forward together. It is important that people do not wallow indefinitely in grief and become chronic complainers. Engage those with influence to communicate the positive aspects of the change initiative.

With a commitment to cultivate people to reach their highest potential, these strategies to accommodate grief are essential for helping others through the change process.

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