Take care on the curves

On Friday, 24 June, there was a palpable sense of shock. For those who had voted “Remain” the was a feeling of loss – almost like a bereavement. For those had voted “Leave” there was a sense of surprise and perhaps elation at succeeding against the odds.

As someone who has worked on change programmes, these reactions made me think of the various change curves that consultants often bandy about. I wasn’t the only one reminded of this. Not long after the results I heard a “Remain” voter interviewed on the radio referring to the grief curve.

Grief curve Source: Gov.uk

The grief curve, also known as the grief cycle, was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, and it consists of five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the original work, which is based on her experience with dying patients, Dr Kubler-Ross is careful to explain that this is not a fixed process. Instead, stages may be repeated and can be of varying lengths.

The strength of the idea though was such that an oversimplified version has been picked up and used in other contexts. Some have clear similarities – such as divorce and arguably the feeling after the EU Referendum – but others are more distant, as is the case with change in organisations.

As with so many powerful ideas that are simply expressed, the original caveats and nuances are often lost. Hence we have witnessed management consultants using the grief curve – now applied as a change curve – as some type of rigid process. It should be stressed that this is no criticism of Dr Kubler-Ross’s work. As Dr Kubler-Ross herself said in her book “On Grief and Grieving”: “The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.”

The problem we have here is the tendency in management to look for the short cuts to understanding. While we need simple models to make sense of a complex world, we need to be aware of the limitations of the oversimplified model when we apply it to the real world.

We also need to reflect that not all change in organisations is ‘grief’. We might all be delighted with, for instance, some new technology. Though, I guess that the curve might run from surprise and elation, through disappointment, resignation and eventually boredom as we begin to crave the next generation of technology.

There is also the question of perspective. Where there are winners and losers – an office relocation for example – there could be gratitude for shorter journey times for some as well as grief in the workforce for those travelling further. As we saw last Friday, there was rejoicing as well as despair after the Referendum.

Perhaps this calls for us to move beyond the curves when it comes to thinking about how we live with change. If change is indeed the only constant, maybe we need to see change more like the ‘hero’s quest’ where we receive a wake-up call and then face setbacks and challenges on the journey and overcome them with the support of others. Surely this would be better than thinking of all reactions to change as grief? Let’s keep the grief curve to help us with bereavement.

Returning to the Referendum, I suspect that the Remain voters will be cycling around the anger, bargaining and depression stages for a long time yet before they reach acceptance. As for the Leave voters, many are already showing some signs of disappointment less than a week after their initial elation, as they hear from the Brexit campaigners that there is not an extra £350m a week to be spent on the NHS. Whichever way we voted, we have all had a wake-up call and all of us will need to make some heroic efforts to meet the challenges we now face.

Meet the author

Ian Bennett

Ian Bennett

Ian is an expert in change management, efficiency reviews, business cases and costing in the public sector. Ian has over 30 years of experience of working in the public sector, as a civil servant, an auditor and as a consultant, covering central and local government, defence,… Read more »