Change Management: The Art of Understanding Loss

When speaking at a conference recently, I asked the group how many of them enjoyed change. Out of 25 people, only 4 raised their hands. I then asked for a volunteer who was willing to go through a change; I had them come to the front of the room with me. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $20 bill and handed it to them. I told them they could keep it and then addressed them and the room saying, "You just went through a change. Does anyone think they might enjoy change now?" All 25 hands shot up. 

When you really dig, you'll find most people don't actually have a problem with "change," especially when it benefits them. What most people actually struggle with is change that includes actual or perceived "loss." Author and speaker, Amy K. Hutchens states, "Humans are prone to avoid loss, but we actually don't fear change. Rather, we fear not being successful in a new way, which is why it's so much easier to live in the past and cling to old ideas and behaviors."

When rolling out large change initiatives in organizations, most leaders forget to stop and consider what the employees are losing in the change. Change leaders are already onboard with the change; they don't need to be convinced of the benefits. As a result they expect the same positive response from staff, and end up frustrated when they receive a negative reaction instead.

Many leaders won't know how to empathize with employees struggle to embrace change because they have never considered or respected the fact that the employee did, in fact, lose something; an office space that they'd grown attached to (even though the shiny new construction will be so much better!), their mastery and skill over the old system (even though the new system actually saves them time and energy!), pride in the filing process they previously created ( even though a new system will double their efficiency!). You get my point. Empathy is typically lost during change.

Though different personalities perceive change differently, the Kubler-Ross Model identified that many people experience change with the same exact symptoms as someone experiencing grief. Many times, administration only chooses to see change through the lens of innovation, improvements, forward momentum and do not measure the human impact. Because of this, most project timelines do not account for the phase in the project when employees are grieving their "loss" which could impact productivity and engagement for a time.

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A full-scale change within an organization can only go as quickly as the slowest adaptive employees.

Acknowledge the human impact and employee emotional impact of any change initiative. Almost all employees will grieve some sort of loss during the change. Give your coworkers and employees the benefit of the doubt as most are not digging their heels in for no reason, but are processing through the five stages of grief to move forward and embrace the new direction. This is never an excuse for bad behavior or unprofessionalism of course, but it helps to explain why some people are slow to adapt.

In an article by Mind Tools, they state the importance of managing the emotions of change, "Be particularly mindful of how you manage emotions if your organization is undergoing change: how you handle emotions during these crucial times can help or hinder the change process. It's a known fact that if the resistance to change is emotional, it is the hardest form of resistance to overcome. As the leader handling a change initiative, don't avoid the emotions that accompany the change process. Set the mood and manage the emotions – or they will manage you."

Managing change in today's business world is a crucial skill. Understanding how different personalities experience change is essential to improving communication. Utilizing the Kubler-Ross Model to acknowledge where your employees might be in the change process and understanding the loss they are experiencing will equip leaders to helpfully manage the emotions of change and will serve as an aid to change efforts struggling to move forward.

About the Author

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Jessica Beans is a researcher and facilitator specializing in group dynamics, leadership, and change management. She holds an undergraduate degree in public relations and graphic design and a masters degree in organizational leadership with an emphasis in change management and strategic innovation.

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