Resistance to change is the expression of a grief process – Here is how you handle it

24 October 2018
Article written by Annika Lagoni

To succeed with changes, you must be ready to deal with issues such as loss and emotional grief. Complex, emotionally challenging changes have little chance of success, unless the severity of loss is acknowledged and grief is redeemed.

As you probably have realised, it is inevitable that changes in your organisation will happen. And often there will be resistance to the changes. The default reaction is to blame employees for being resistant. While this might be the easiest thing to do, it does not deal with the root cause and the real issues.

Instead, it is vital that you understand the human dynamics of changes to better support your employees through the process of grief. That is what some organisational changes are to employees: a grief process.

Why organisational changes are a loss to employees

Have you ever been surprised by employees’ reactions to even small organisational changes?

Forced change is intimidating and disturbing for people because work is central to most peoples’ lives and identities. That is why forced changes are often emotional experiences. This even applies to positive changes because you still must release your grasp on old, familiar routines.

There are tangible losses, such as loss of income if a person is demoted, or the fear of losing your job. But there are also more abstract losses. This includes loss of control, social status and self-worth. It is important to remember that individuals experience loss in different ways.

Consider this example: Karin has been working for Company X for 20 years. When a new Career Framework is implemented she experienced a loss of status because it makes her seniority less clear. Morten, from the same company, on the other hand, feels like the Career Framework makes him lose control over his career path.

They experience the effect of the change in different ways, depending on their individual interpretation. Losses do not even need to come to fruition in organisational change to cause emotional distress for employees – the mere thought of the chance that it might happen can create profound anxiety.

The 5 stages of grief 

This feeling of loss is naturally followed by the grieving process. Therefore, it is necessary to redeem the sense of loss. In fact, unresolved grief from change processes is the source of much of general resistance to change that we often see in organisations.

The five stages of grief were originally put forward by the physician Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her theory pertains to grieving the loss of a person, but also provides useful insights for understanding how and why people resist and react to changes in organisations.



Giraffe: “It’s no big deal, it’s probably not even quicksand”
The first stage is denial. People simply do not accept or acknowledge what they perceive to be bad news.

Possible reactions can be: “This change is just another initiative put forward by ‘them’ and will be abandoned and lost in the stream; so why should I even bother to change?”.

People try not to pay any attention to the changes and avoid associating with anyone talking positively about the change.


Ensure that your employees understand WHY the change is being made and what is in it for them. But do not overwhelm them with information in the early stages. Release it gradually and preferably face-to-face. In your communications you can gain an advantage by focusing on what stays the same, to create a sense of continuity.



Giraffe: “Stupid quicksand, stupid jungle, I wanna bite someone in the face!”
When people see that the change is starting to become real, they move on to the second stage: anger.

These reactions can be expressed in a variety of ways. Some might take out the anger on themselves, whilst others direct it towards others around them. People in this stage can be expected to be irritable, frustrated and short-tempered.

“This change is completely unnecessary and stupid. In fact, it will surely be the end of everything good and might even bankrupt the whole company”. Sounds a bit extreme? Well, feelings are not necessarily logic, but they are natural.


For your organisation, the anger stage is the “danger zone”. If it is badly managed, the organisation can descend into crisis or chaos. Therefore, this stage needs careful planning and preparation, considering the impacts and objections that people may have.
Listen and watch carefully during this stage so you can respond to the unexpected. And keep in mind that this is a natural reaction and with time, it shall pass and make way for acceptance.



Giraffe: “Are you there God? Listen, if you would just give me a mulligan on this quicksand thing, I promise no more peeing on your smaller creatures”

After the stage of anger starts to settle, and the changes really start to sink in, people will try start thinking of ways to postpone the inevitable or to bargain and negotiate the changes. This is not a bad thing. It is just an exploration process where people are exploring what the change means for them, and whether they can have any influence on what is going on.


Be open to suggestions and input. The feeling of influence can bring relief to those who are moving closer to acceptance. They might, however, still resist by only trying to learn what they think is important, so make sure to set clear timelines and expectations.



Giraffe: “(Crying loudly)”
You are not quite past the rough path yet! After the bargaining phase, there is one more dip in the curve. By now the employees have realised that there is no way out of the situation.

There is little purpose in their work at this stage and morale and energy are low. Employees who are stuck in this phase can act as if they are indifferent or may keep their distance to other people.


This phase is not easy on the on the team. Given the state of low morale, the more exciting and engaging the training can be made, the better it would be for employees to move ahead and give it their best. Giving positive feedback in the learning process – and perhaps using rewards – can help with motivation.



Giraffe: “You know something? I’m cool with this. I bet heaven has all the tender leaves I can eat, and everybody gets their own slurpee machine”

In this stage, people know that the changes will happen and begin to accept their losses. This means that they are coming to terms with the changes and all the known consequences. The quicker you can get people to this stage, the better chance you have of succeeding.


This is when you finally start realising the benefits of your hard work effort. During this phase it is essential that you repeat and reinforce the change objectives and strategy. And remember to celebrate and share the success stories!

So, what can we learn from this process of grief? That negative emotions are natural reactions and should not be suppressed. Instead mourning should be encouraged because that is what bring them to stage where changes are realised.

Keep in mind that the stages are fluid, and people can move back and forth between them, depending on how the change is perceived – which is highly correlated with how it is managed. Stages can also vary in their length: some can last a couple of hours where the person does not even realise that they went through it, while others can last for years.

”Grief is seldom spoken about in organizational life; it is in fact one of the most common and least understood workplace phenomena.” George Kohlrieser

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