Why A Good Change Can Feel Really Bad

Why A Good Change Can Feel Really Bad

Change can look great on paper.  It can make total sense logically. It can even be something you can get excited about. Yet, the experience of change can feel very different – much more negative – than you expected. If change is supposed to be so good, then why does it feel so bad?

This has plagued organizations for almost a century. Since the 1930’s studies have suggested that only 30% to 40% of organizational change initiatives provide the successful outcomes expected, and a high percentage have unexpected negative results. Although there are many factors contributing to this, one key factor is that, although people may have been prepared for how the change would look, they weren’t prepared for how the change would feel.

Some of the most helpful insights into how change feels come from psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. She is the author of the internationally best-selling book, On Death and Dying (1969), where she provided the ground-breaking theory of the stages of grief, also known as the “Kübler-Ross model”.

This is an adapted, 4-stage version of her work:

Slide1 change

Kübler-Ross would suggest that when a person experiences a change in their life, these steps are predictable and unavoidable. It is simply an aspect of human nature. Although her work focused on the grieving process associated with losing a loved one, this turned out to be true with most changes in our lives, including changes in the workplace.For example, a few years ago after realizing that my do-it-yourself spreadsheet approach to customer relationship management was not serving our team or our customers well, I decided to invest in a quality CRM solution. After some research, we decided to subscribe to Salesforce. My associate, Claudia, did all the training and customizing so that we were set for a January 1st launch. I was excited! The research was so clear that this would take us to the next level of effectiveness and results.  I couldn’t wait for January 1st to finally get here so that we could go live. Here’s how the next few months looked:

DENIAL (January through March) – As much as I was trained in the new system and knew I was expected to comply, I kept finding myself doing my emails the old-fashioned way and writing my notes on the same notepad I had used for years.

ANGER (April) – After it became clear at the quarterly team meeting that I was lagging in my compliance, I committed to get with the program. But every day I would complain (often in my head) about how much I missed the old way of doing things; how complicated this new system was, and how much money this subscription was costing us.

BARGAINING (May-June) – I was living in two worlds. For efficiency reasons (or so I thought) I would often go with my old pad-and-paper, email approach, and then at the end of the day I’d convert things to the CRM system. I was starting to see the benefits Salesforce was providing the more I pushed myself to use it, but I also felt most confident in my old way of doing things.

ACCEPTANCE (July onwards) – It soon become clear that the new system was more effective and was resulting in more success. It was also becoming clear that it was actually an easier system than my old approach. I had finally committed to a new way of doing things.

What’s interesting about this case study is that it is a personal example of going through Kübler-Ross’ predictable stages including both denial and anger, yet it was a change that I actually wanted. A change I wanted so bad that I was investing significant resources to make it happen. You can except a person would experience these stages much more significantly if the change was one that they didn’t support, understand, or one that they feared.

The ultimate goal is not to avoid going through the stages of change. As I mentioned before, it’s human nature. The goal is to go through the stages in a healthy way and to not get stuck along the way. Organizations that manage change well understand this and beyond communicating all the benefits of a proposed change, they also validate that even good change will at times feel bad. They then create a strategy to not only implement the change, but one that expects and allows the team to move through the predictable stages of change in a healthy way.

Reflection Questions:

  • Reflect on the last significant change you experienced (either at work or at home) and identify examples of when you were in each stage of the Change Cycle.
  • What strategies or practices have allowed you to move through the Change Cycle in a healthy way in the past?
  • By understanding the Change Cycle, how can your organization move through future changes in a healthier way?



Tim Arnold is passionate about helping leaders increase their resilience and deliver results.  He is the author of The Power of Healthy Tension and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can leverage tension for team, leadership, and organizational success.

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