The stages in the grief model are:
- Denial: This change cannot be happening! You have your facts wrong!
- Anger: This change should NOT be happening! Whose fault is it?
- Bargaining: How can I keep this change from happening? What can I do about it?
- Depression: I have no power to stop this change from happening. All is lost.
- Acceptance: I guess it is what it is. How can I work with this change?
It should be noted that people do not always start at the top and march through this list in order. These stages do not always appear sequentially. Often there will be jumping around, apparently making progress toward acceptance and then falling back to one of the other stages. No two people react in the same way with difficult news. Some will pass through the cycle very quickly while others will work more slowly through the stages, possibly relapsing and repeating some stages one or more times.
As a leader, you need to recognize that this grief process is real and will delay your people from helping with your change management process. Succeeding through the grief process will take a significant amount of social awareness and relationship management, using the right combination of caring, counseling and giving time, mixed with messaging and clear direction for the future. In addition, it is important for you to recognize the grief cycle in yourself. As they say on the airlines, you must first “put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you”.
Many years ago I was an engineering manager in manufacturing when I received the word that we would be transferring essential core technologies for our flagship products to Asia. Although this was not the first time I encountered the grief cycle, it was the first time I had words and knowledge to help recognize the struggle we were all facing together. Complicating the problem, the unspoken fear was that if the core technology could be offshored, then there was no reason the entire manufacturing center couldn’t be transferred as well, and all of us would be out of our jobs.
While it was clear that different people accepted the inevitable earlier than others and were able to productively help in the change, the grief cycle in some fashion was seen in most people:
- Denial: There is no way that management would have made this decision. You must have your facts wrong. They know how much careful crafting there is to making these technology blocks. A billion dollars in shipments depend on the people here who have 20 and 30 years of experience making them! They hand modify each and every one, tuning them to essential specifications. This can’t be written down in a process. It takes the keen instinct of the highly experienced! You can’t hire someone in Asia with no background in our special technology and expect them to make them with any yield! You must have heard wrong!
- Anger: What are those fools thinking!? This would have never happened if Mr. Specialmanager was still here. At least he understood the technology and wasn’t just looking at it as a set of numbers on a spreadsheet! You know what the problem is? They hire these managers at high levels from the outside that may have received a fancy MBA from a well-known school, but they know nothing about our business and our technology. They are risking everything! What a bunch of idiots! This place is falling apart!
- Bargaining: If the problem is cost, I have 3 cost reduction projects that I have just been waiting to get to that could change everything! Let me pitch them to you and then give me the time. I know that we can make up the difference! Look, this offshoring project will take tons of time from me and my team and we could spend that same time focusing on these cost reduction projects. In fact, if you remember, I have been asking to set aside and protect resources for continuous improvement including cost reduction for the last year! But we are always living hand-to mouth, juggling new products and emergency shipments for customers when the order probably shouldn’t have been taken. Cut out some of these special shipments and I could get my cost reduction projects done!
- Depression: This is just the beginning. They will offshore the key technologies, with our help of course. Next will be the main products. And before long, there will be no manufacturing presence here. Perhaps I could get a job in the R/D department, but what is to prevent them from offshoring that work too? Before long, there will be no technology work left in this company. Everything will be sales and marketing with all other functions outsourced. In fact, it’s not to far from there to imagine all manufacturing disappearing from the country. I hear the services industry is booming. Perhaps it’s not too late to start on that law degree, or for me, perhaps it is.
- Acceptance: The decision is made. What’s done is done. How can I make the best of it for me and the people I care about? I need to take care of my family, of course, but I also need to make sure our customers don’t suffer through this. There are a lot of ways this could fail, and I know most of them. This will fail and many people will be hurt unless I can get in there and make sure the transfer is smooth. I may not know what is ahead for me, but I know everyone will be better served if I can first make this project a success. After the dust settles, if there is not a spot for me in this company, I will look elsewhere. I have transferable skills, and I know I can make a significant and positive impact wherever I go, but it starts here. I need to focus on today’s problem. And today’s problem is this: “How do I do my part to make this offshoring a successful project and positive experience for all involved?”
What you have read above was a real situation. To manage through it and begin the process of transfer was a real change leadership problem. As you might expect, the technology block transfer was successfully completed in spite of worries that I shared in the beginning, and is was followed by those flagship products. Before long, nearly all of the manufacturing line was outsourced. Even so, the doomsday scenarios didn’t come to pass. People found new and inspiring work, and life and business went on. There were struggles along the way, and the echoes of this change could be felt for years. In fact, it is still talked about in some circles.
Your role in change management is not to isolate and protect everyone from the change, but to help others get past the grief cycle and become productive participants in the change. The world will be different after the change. There is no stopping this, but you can, as an effective change leader, help others make the best of it and even embrace the change as providing new and exciting opportunities.
Ignore the grief cycle at your peril. Keep your eye on your key leaders, your guiding coalition aiding in your change management process. If they are not through the grief cycle, they cannot be your best advocates.
In my next blog, I will show that no matter how great your plan is and refined your leadership skills are, there are some people that will just never make the change.