Episode 21: Change, Grief and Work Performance

As they say, the only constant, is change. All change, whether perceived as "good" or "bad" requires us to move through the grief cycle. And there is a direct correlation between our movement through the stages of the grief cycle and our real-time productivity and performance at work. By being aware of the emotions we all share as we navigate the stages of the Change Cycle, and the impact of these emotions on work performance, we can better support ourselves and our teams through change. Intentionality and appropriate support around this process can actually help us and our teams return to pre-change levels of performance sooner rather than later.

Intro

Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

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Change and the Grief Cycle

Today I want to talk about change and the grief cycle.  One of the things that I really integrated when I took 200 hours of yoga teacher training was that all change, whether perceived as “good” or “bad” change involves grief. I have seen this concept prove out in my own life and in the lives of others over and over again.

I have also found that we are most often surprised by the grief that comes with what we perceive as positive change in our lives. We get confused because we think “good” change is supposed to be “easy.”  But that isn’t exactly the case.

The Change Curve is based on the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who first articulated the five stages of grief. The Change Curve model integrates the stages of grief with the impact that significant change or upheaval has on work performance over time. This model applies no matter whether we perceive the change to be GOOD or BAD.

One of the places that we can really waste our own energy and inadvertently overtax our teams is by expecting ourselves and others to perform at the highest levels no matter what changes are taking place in our personal and professional lives. We try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and push through, but every action takes more energy than it used to, our brain is foggy, our focus is fractured, our teams revert to the storming phase of team performance, and we rail against ourselves and our teams for not being able to keep performing at the levels at which we have come to expect. 

What if, instead of trying to force ourselves and our teams to perform at maximum capacity even in the midst of change, we take our foot off the gas pedal, give ourselves and everyone else some space to breathe, dial in on the support that we and our teams need in order to successfully navigate the change, re-calibrate and re-ground, and THEN see what we can accomplish once we have had a chance to fully integrate the changes that have taken place. 

The emotions that we navigate during the grief and/or change process are often grouped into three stages:

Stage 1 - Shock and Denial

Stage one is shock and denial.  The first reaction to major change or loss is usually shock. This shock, while potentially short lived, can result in a temporary slow down and loss of productivity. Performance tends to dip sharply as individuals who are normally clear and decisive seek more guidance and reassurance. During this period, agreed upon deliverables and deadlines can be missed. The shock is often exacerbated by: 

  • Lack of information

  • Fear of the unknown

  • Fear of looking stupid or doing something wrong

When people are afraid, and lack information, they are also prone to imagining worst case scenarios. This catastrophizing perpetuates and fuels fear-based behaviors. Some of these behaviors include blaming and pointing fingers, paralysis, and holding on too tightly or becoming a control freak. When we are afraid, our vision of the world narrows and we slide into our default working and communication styles (while others slide into theirs) and we have more trouble communicating and maintaining perspective and context.

After the initial shock passes, denial is often next. When people are in denial, they tend to hold tightly to the past. Everything was just fine as it was, why do things need to change?!?! Common feelings in the denial phase include: 

  • Being overly enamored with the status quo. 

  • Feeling threatened. 

  • Fear of failure. 

Individuals who have not previously experienced major change can be particularly affected by this first stage. It is also common for people to convince themselves that the change isn’t actually going to happen, or if it does, that it won’t affect them. 

Performance often (temporarily) returns to the levels seen before the dip that was caused by the shock. But people carry on as they always have and may deny having received communication about the change at all. They may also make excuses to avoid taking part in forward planning. 

I distinctly recall a staff member whom I intentionally engaged in every phase of a change process. I could tell from my initial experience with this person, that they were going to struggle with change. Imagine my surprise when, after having participated in every single change conversation, it was clear that this individual had no concept of the fact that change actually was going to occur. 

During the first phase of the Change Curve, communication is key. Reiterating what the actual change is, the effects it may have, acknowledging tough emotions, and providing as much information and reassurance as possible, will all help support individuals experiencing these feelings. 

Acknowledging tough emotions is a critical leadership skill that is often overlooked, in part, because we as humans are not comfortable with tough emotions, and in part because we have operated for a long time with the belief that emotions do not belong in the workplace. 

I want to tell you a secret. 

EMOTIONS ARE EMBEDDED in the workplace. Because we are humans. And unless we are masters at disassociation (as I once was) all human behavior and all human decisions have an emotional component. To act like emotions don’t belong or don’t exist is its own form of dangerous denial. And as I have learned on my personal journey, when we do not learn to acknowledge and allow space for negative emotions, unprocessed emotions eventually hijack the plane. 

Stage 2 - Anger and Depression

Stage two of the change curve is anger and depression.  After the feelings of shock and denial, anger is often the next stage. A scapegoat, in the shape of an organization, group or individual, is found. Focusing the blame on someone or something else allows a continuation of the denial by providing another focus for the fears and anxieties the potential impact is causing. Common feelings include:

  • Suspicion

  • Skepticism

  • Frustration

The lowest point of the change curve (and the deepest dip in performance) comes when the anger begins to wear off and the realization hits that the change is REAL. It is common for morale to be low and for self-doubt and anxiety levels to peak. Feelings during this stage can be hard to express, and depression is possible as the impact of what has been lost is acknowledged. This phase can be associated with: 

  • Apathy

  • Isolation

  • Remoteness

At this point performance is at its lowest. There is a tendency to fixate on small issues or problems, often to the detriment of day to day tasks. Individuals may continue to perform tasks in the same way as before, even if this is no longer appropriate behavior. 

During this phase, people can be reassured by the knowledge that others are experiencing the same feelings. [Doh. There are those pesky emotions again!] Providing managers, teams and individuals with information about the Change Curve underlines that the emotions are usual and shared, and this can help to develop a more stable platform from which to move into the final stage. 

Okay, so we have to acknowledge the difficult emotions and how they influence performance. We take steps to develop a shared understanding that we are not alone in how we feel, which can be a powerful antidote. What do we DO with these scary feelings?? This is where training on emotional well-being, emotional intelligence and emotional resilience can make a team much more resilient in the face of change. When we know we have the capacity to navigate negative emotions and to bounce back we don’t have to be as afraid of them. And simply having the tools and skills needed to navigate negative emotions can ensure that we maintain our ability to make grounded (not just emotionally charged) decisions, and to exercise our ability to choose how we respond to difficult emotions instead of letting our emotions run the show.

Phase 3 - Acceptance and integration

The third phase is acceptance and integration.  After the darker emotions of the second stage, a more optimistic and enthusiastic mood begins to emerge. In this third stage, individuals accept that change is inevitable, and begin to work with the changes rather than against them. Now come thoughts of: 

  • Exciting new opportunities

  • Relief that the change has been survived

  • Impatience for the change to be complete

The final steps involve integration. The focus is firmly on the future and there is a sense that real progress can now be made. By the time everyone reaches this stage, the changed situation has firmly replaced the original and becomes the new reality. The primary feelings now include: 

  • Acceptance

  • Hope

  • Trust

During the early part of this stage, energy and productivity remain low, but slowly begin to show signs of recovery. Everyone will have lots of questions and be curious about possibilities and opportunities. Normal topics of conversation resume, and a wry humor is often used when referring to behavior earlier in the process. 

During this third stage, individuals will respond well to being given specific tasks or responsibilities, however, communication remains key. Regular progress reports, praise, and taking time to celebrate successes can help to cement the more buoyant mood. It is not uncommon for there to be a return to an earlier stage if the level of support suddenly drops. 

Each person reacts individually to change, and not all will experience every phase. Some people may spend  a lot of time in stages 1 and 2, while others who are more accustomed to change may move fairly swiftly into stage 3. It is also important to realize that, while people may move through each phase in number order, there is no right or wrong sequence. Several people going through the same change at the same time are likely to travel at their own speed, and will reach each stage at different times. 

I have also seen people get stuck somewhere in the Change Curve. And I have been the leader who has “moved on” not realizing that my people were still in various stages of the cycle; impatient because I thought that we had already “covered this.” 

Here are some other steps you can take when supporting others through the Change Curve.  Ask yourself:

  1. Have people been given all the information they need to help them understand why the change was made and how the change benefits them, their team or the organization. People always want to know what’s in it for them and what is going to happen to them.

  2. For those who tend to be risk aware, have you taken the time to let them know that the inherent risks have been considered and either mitigated or that the change is still more beneficial than sticking to the status quo

  3. Give people time. You can set boundaries and expectations that people will not spread fear, gossip and blame, while also allowing them time to process all that is happening. 

  4. Share as much information as you can. 

  5. Allow people to express their frustration and concerns in appropriate ways and through appropriate channels--TELL THEM what those channels are and make sure they know there are people there to listen.

  6. Give people specific things they can focus on or do as they anticipate how the change will affect their role. 

  7. Help your team connect the dots between the change (as a concept) and how it will positively impact processes, people, the future and business value. 

  8. Encourage your team to innovate and brainstorm where appropriate. Give them a doorway to be part of the excitement and to create solutions where needed.

  9. And help people integrate what they have learned by asking them “what have you learned about yourself and the process you have gone through?”

I have been observing the impact of the change and grief cycle as I come to terms with learning that I have osteoarthritis in my knee which has resulted in a bone bruise under the affected joint.

Due to the nature of the injury, I have been forced to be still a lot. Frankly, spending this time on the couch harkens back to the days when my physical and mental illness forced me to be there. I wouldn’t say it is a pleasant association. But I understand why the association is there. 

And I have also been flirting with the edges of my mental health as I navigate this potentially permanent change in my ability to do activities that I enjoy and have relied on as part of my healing journey. 

While I wasn’t surprised that I was sad once I receive an official diagnosis, and in hindsight, can see that I started moving through the stages of grief several weeks ago as the pain in my knee increased and it seemed less and less likely that I was going to be able to resume some of my normal activities, I learned at least one new thing through this process. 

I observed the impact that processing the change had on my energy to do other things. My overall energy has been pretty low over the last few weeks even though I have been getting lots and lots of sleep. I found myself struggling to focus and my creativity was temporarily nowhere to be found. 

The good news is that I am present enough with this experience and with all that I have learned on my journey that I was, for the most part, able to just observe how I felt and to allow that to be; seeking productive outlets as needed. I will admit, though, that I have had moments of thankfully short-lived panic about all I wasn’t getting accomplished. Old habits die hard after all.  

One of the things that I find to be such a relief is each time I come across new information that adds dimension to the lessons I have already learned; adding another layer of clarity and often allowing me to release even deeper into what I already know I must do in order to take care of myself and keep the long-term in mind over the short-term obstacle. 

So imagine my very pleasant surprise when I googled “Change the Grief Cycle” and found the Change Curve; establishing a very concrete connection between change, the grief process, and the very human impact that change and grief have on our productivity and performance. Often when we have a name for something, and more context, we are able to breathe more easily through things that otherwise might send us into a tailspin or set us back for even longer periods of time as we beat ourselves up for feeling the way we feel or panic that this reduction in capacity is going to last forever.

I also want to tie information back to what I know about my own path to burnout. As life became more untenable and chaotic, as I lost my mom and faced seismic changes in my personal and professional life, I never re-calibrated the support system around me or even my own treatment of and care for myself. I didn’t support myself through all of the changes beyond the bare minimum nor did I ask anyone else to. I now believe that this is one of the almost fatal errors I made along my path. I expected my performance levels to stay the same or higher. And I pushed myself to the brink while trying. 

I hope you can use the information shared in this podcast for your own benefit when you navigate change in your own life and also as you support others in your professional and personal lives who may be navigating change as well. Be kind, patient and compassionate with yourself. Be kind, patient and compassionate toward others. You will find resilience there. 

For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.

Thank you for listening. If you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.

I look forward to being back with you next time!

Resources:

https://www.insights.com/us/resources/coaching-people-through-the-change-curve/

https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/humanresources/documents/learningdevelopment/the_change_curve.pdf

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