Weathering the seven stages of cultural change


Cultural change, like grief, has seven stages, I was told by a friend who was trying to be clever. But it got me thinking.

The theory of five grief stages was first established by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, but over the years, others have been added to bring the total to seven.

Cultural change is usually felt as a major loss — even by those who believe in the cause — and there is in most cases a sense of sadness or overwhelm — both in the changers and changees. It takes time to work through the stages; you can’t rush them, although you can do things to alleviate them to get to the stage of acceptance and a new normal.

At the INMA World Congress, John Paton from News Digital Media warned the audience that “transition is not transformation.” So could a road map for the stages of grief and the transition of cultural change help our industry?

Here’s my interpretation:

  1. Shock & denial: The first response to the decision to introduce culture change is usually met with either shock or outright denial. This is when you’ll be told the changes aren’t needed. The psychologists claim shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks. Conclusion: Don’t be surprised if people don’t embrace your plan for change immediately. Expect resistance and denial, but don’t be harsh about it. It’s part of the normal reaction process and it won’t last forever. Keep talking your team through it.

  2. Pain & fear: As the shock wears off, it is replaced with fear and pain. There is worry about what things will be like in the “new world,” or the way the change has been outlined seems horrible and unsupportable and there is upset at just how it is going to be carried out. At this stage, many people will attempt to minimise the pain and view what is coming in terms of what they will lose. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase. Conclusion: Keep explaining the vision. Execute any cuts cleanly and clinically — don’t drag it out. Act humanely. Support those who are carrying out the changes on your behalf. You’re heading into the worst of it. Be ready.

  3. Anger & bargaining: Fear gives way to anger and a sense in those being “transformed” that they may be able to bargain their way out of it if they are clever and persuasive enough. In cultural change, this is the stage where people start to say, “I know we have to change, but ...” Then a smaller, incremental adjustment is suggested, rather than embracing the total cultural change plan as proposed. A failure to see the “sense” of alternative plans put forward creates rage, frustration and, sometimes, union action.

    Conclusion: This is the most difficult part of cultural change, when positions become entrenched, when cuts and new structures that “will never work” are introduced. Managers need to try not to respond to the anger, nor be too significantly swayed by bargaining, but stay a true course. And remember that the anger is “normal” in what everyone is going through — not a reflection on them in particular.

  4. Depression & reflection: Just when management thinks everyone should be getting back to normal, those who have survived the change may start to feel extremely sad. During this time it is common to realise the magnitude of the loss — which, in a corporate sense, means you see how far you’ve come, worry about how far the company still has to go, and feel quite desolate about your energy reserves to get there. Many who have survived any cuts will feel “survivor guilt” and wonder why they have stayed. 

    In corporations, this is the time when the cuts have been made, the desks are empty, the workload exhausting, and things still aren’t quite working as planned. This is the time many companies bring in consultants to tell them things they already know. Conclusion: This is the time to bring everyone together over drinks or a special gathering, and recognise their contributions and commitment. Articulate the values the company has traditionally held and how these are being reinterpreted for the new economics, to underpin ongoing success. Point out some early wins and keep talking about the brighter future with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm — even if you’re dying inside.

  5. The upward turn: One or two new hires start — people with new skills and energy, who are not associated with past events. Life becomes a little calmer, workloads are heavy, but there is the promise of them lifting, and even that promise feels like a major milestone. New ideas begin to bubble through that might just work, although there is still a lot to resolve. Conclusion: You are turning the corner. There are better days ahead. Check for any alterations that might be needed in your original plan, now that you have a better real life understanding of how it is playing out.

  6. Reconstruction & working through: The company is now functional in its new model and solving problems in its new framework. Every week, more surviving staff are cheering up and embracing the change. Mentions of the old way are nearly all gone or met by new team members with rolled eyes who cannot believe it was ever done that way. Everyone is coming up with great ideas that are easier to execute under the new structure, and there is a new energy beginning to blossom. Budgets are being hit, goals are on their way to being achieved. Conclusion: You are on the final leg.

  7. Acceptance & hope: You are now in the new reality, the new normal. Workloads are manageable, staff are settled and productive, there is a new sense of culture and teamwork that is impacted by the past, but not dominated by it. The new structure is kicking multiple goals which is creating a sense of success and being a winning team. Conclusion: Congratulations. You did it. It is now possible to start thinking about what is next!
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