Leaders Understand the Psychology of Change

Change is inevitable, and so there are many resources to help organizations deal with change. The John Kotter works (Our Iceberg is Melting) are very popular, and for good reason. You’ve heard of Who Moved my Cheese? as well, certainly.

Change management resources like these can help leaders navigate and push change successfully, but something I’ve learned recently is that leaders need to also attend to people on a more individual basis, and keep basic psychology in mind.

A wonderful resource I’ve discovered is the application of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief to organizational change, and the clear indication that a person’s needs are different depending on their stage.

This resource helps leaders discover that not everyone needs to be “pumped up” or motivated, or that they should avoid the basics of performance feedback, depending on the stage. In the image below, the employee’s needs are color-coded to the appropriate stage.

It’s harder work, because leaders need to know who needs what, and when. This speaks to the need for one-on-one relationship development so you can help team members through changes.

In short, some dos and don’ts for each stage:

  • When in denial, DON’T spend a lot of time reassuring people that everything will be okay, but DO create concrete alignment – make current goals and timelines and job responsibilities clear for all current projects.
  • When in frustration, DON’T tell people to “settle down, it’s not that bad” or the like, instead DO communicate as openly as possible about everything you know and can share, acknowledging rumors they might be hearing, giving them possible or likely timelines for future organizational changes. In this stage, leaders often make the mistake of holding back information to “protect” their people; often, the opposite is needed here.
  • When in depression, DON’T push performance feedback, logical reasons to not worry, or dismissal of feeling; DO invoke empathy, and focus on immediate motivation – work to create small wins to assure the person that their presence has value, and show your optimism that things will be okay.
  • When in experiment, DON’T back off, thinking the worst is over, or focus too much on others; DO maximize performance feedback and coaching, both positive and critical, and move quickly into getting into productive work.
  • When in decision, DON’T assume the change is done and be all about business as usual quite yet; DO share knowledge of the “new way” in terms of organization of work, business acumen, future goals and initiatives, and potential tweaks on their way.

Applying a more individual, rather than global, approach to the needs of your team members in tough times is the hard work that leaders do.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer


Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-04015-9

Scire, P. (2007). “Applying Grief Stages to Organizational Change”SaveSaveSaveSaveSave

7 Responses

  1. Sally Wilke
    | Reply

    Good stuff! Hey, I use that already!

  2. Alan Lammers
    | Reply

    Change, even a welcome one, is always hard. What a good graphic for a leader to keep visible when having those relationship-building conversations! Thanks for sharing this.

    • Alan Feirer
      | Reply

      Thanks, Alan. And thanks for spelling your name correctly. 🙂

  3. Maureen Higgins
    | Reply

    Very helpful, thanks for the article!

  4. stacie
    | Reply

    very helpful, thank you

  5. Jonathan Moore
    | Reply

    Thanks for your article. I’m trying to track down one of your sources Scire, P. (2007). “Applying Grief Stages to Organizational Change” Do you have a copy you can share or can you let me know where I might find a copy please?

    • Alan Feirer
      | Reply

      I can’t help you, Jonathan – sorry. I recommend you find a friend in academia who has access to all those online journal sources. Good luck – it’s good stuff.

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