Does change really have to be so hard?

Are you familiar with this model? Often known as the Kübler-Ross model, it gives the stages that you apparently need to go through when you experience grief or have to deal with a difficult change.


Here are the five stages:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

I’m afraid I don’t really believe it. So I was very glad to hear an interview with Ruth Davis Konigsberg who has written a book called “The Truth About Grief”.

She described how there has been surprisingly little research into whether you really do follow these stages.

Is “Kübler-Ross” real?

So why do we believe these things? It turns out that once a theory is popularised you tend to believe in it so it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Research on change

George Bonanno (Columbia) has done research in this area and it turns out that you don’t have to go through these five stages to get through grief or difficult changes.

Some people do and some don’t

It may even be that the five ‘stages’ have lengthened people’s expectations of how long grief has to last.

Coping with change

The point is that telling people that they can expect to go through these stages sets up an expectation. It also can cause problems if you don’t go through the stages, as you may feel you are not responding “properly”.

In organisations we have to handle a lot of change. People use this same cycle to explain how employees will respond.  I think you mainly get these responses when change is badly handled or managers think people will respond this way.

If you treat people badly during change, don’t tell them what’s going on, don’t involve them, don’t have clear objectives and keep changing the priorities, of course people will get rather annoyed, angry and so on.

But, in many cases this is entirely unnecessary. It only happens because it was done so badly in the first place.

For more help with implementing change click here

Should objectives be achievable?

Here’s a comment on last week’s blog;  Frighteningly bad objectives

“The concern I had when I had to sign off my objectives as written by my Line Manager was that some of the objectives I was asked to achieve were already unachievable (SM-unAchievable-unRealistic-T) as it depended on another unit achieving this and they weren’t and couldn’t due to some factors.

When I asked how this would be measured I was told to just do it.
After being fed up with the back and forth on the subject, I gave up, signed off and kept my emails as evidence that I had concerns on some objectives from the beginning. I didn’t think the objectives were SMART at all but…!”

It’s not the first time that I have heard people voice concerns like this.
There are several issues here.

Should objectives be achievable?

No. That is not the purpose of objectives. They are there to let you know what you need to achieve. It’s up to you to work out how to achieve it.
If people are put off from agreeing to objectives that seem to be unachievable, then you miss out on the opportunity to improve standards and get closer to perfection.

The surgeon

We all know that sometimes people die on the operating table, or shortly afterwards. However, you would still like the surgeon to have the objective of keeping you alive. And you would most certainly not want him or her to refuse to try, just because you dying would mean him or her not achieving his or her objectives.

You expect whoever is measuring the performance of your surgeon to understand that and adjust accordingly.

We would also expect the most experienced surgeons to be carrying out the most difficult operations, so you would expect them to have lower success rates than other surgeons who are working on easier cases.

Poor management

However, this is different. Our correspondent can’t achieve the objectives because another department has already failed. In this case it would seem that the manager was not even prepared to discuss the issue. As a manager it is extremely important that these things are discussed and you help the team member to achieve their objectives rather than the approach we see here.

I suspect the manager’s own objectives are similar and he or she probably needs someone to blame. But that’s not going to help.

In a case like this the departments need to get together and work out a solution.

Being dependent on others

This is a very common issue. You are unable to achieve your objectives because someone else has been late or not achieved theirs. It’s quite plainly ridiculous to penalise you in this case.

The measurement system

You need to get this right so that people are not penalised for the ineffectiveness of others. Otherwise the whole performance management system is de-motivating and loses all credibility.

Poorer performance

You also end up getting lower standards overall, because no one will agree to tough objectives in case they fail and spend all their time covering their backs (as in the comment above) instead of focussing on working out how to achieve their objective.

All in all it’s a very depressing, but quite common example of seriously bad management. It’s hard to imagine how any organisation can be successful it if allows managers to behave like this.

Frighteningly bad objectives

Do your objectives scare you?

I work with people at all levels helping them to write their objectives and goals and make them SMART. Let me tell you what scares me.

I find it really scary when the top people, those who are paid the most, don’t want clear SMART objectives or goals. It makes me wonder why.

No financial objective

Probably the worst case I came across was the marketing director of a global company who would not agree to a financial objective with an actual figure in it.

The HR manager in the meeting could hardly hide his contempt. What was most interesting was that all of the four managers who reported in to the Marketing Director just went ahead and set themselves specific figures anyway. In fact, the financial total of what they set themselves was well over what the director should have set.

Impossible to understand objectives

In another example, directors wanted to say things like:

  • Embed the new philosophy into the fabric of the organisation.
  • Challenge and push the envelope of understanding to enhance quality and service.

After hours of work with the team that had been tasked to write these objectives, we came up with some very clear objectives:

  • Ensure all employees follow the agreed safety procedures
  • Ensure all new plans and strategies are based on research.
  • Identify new ways of doing business that will bring in revenue of £3.5m

This was what they really needed to achieve. You could be forgiven for wondering if these objectives were talking about the same company.

The team I was working with told me that the directors didn’t like things written in that kind of ‘basic’ language. In other words, I suspect, they didn’t like people to be able to understand them.

When you have objectives that are vague and woolly, no one will know if you have achieved them (including you) so you can’t be held to account.

There are some senior people (and some not so senior) who think that their objectives should be written in this obtuse and impenetrable language. I am not one of them.

There really is no point in having an objective if no one can understand it or know when it has been achieved or how to measure it.

Scary objectives

I think some of these people are scared of having objectives that hold them to account. They are frightened about what will happen if they fail. They don’t want to take responsibility. But that is what all of us are paid for.

It’s vital that their objectives are right. If the objectives at the top are wrong, there is little hope for those reporting in to them.

The impact of poor objectives at the top is far greater than that of poor objectives further down. So it’s really worth putting effort in to get them right. Get help if you need it.

How to avoid mistakes when implementing change

To avoid mistakes, you need to know why the mistakes happen.


You may have seen this blog
5 Big mistakes to avoid when managing change

In it I identified five mistakes you need to avoid when you are implementing change:


  1. Having the wrong objective
  2. Not involving people early enough
  3. No clear priorities
  4. Bad communication
  5. Not learning from past changes


But why do people make these mistakes?

Change is often made when you are under pressure and need to make change in order to survive. Or just making changes can put you under pressure.


Your brain

One reason that covers most of the mistakes I mention is that when you are under pressure, your brain responds in particular ways and these are not always helpful.



When threatened, people often feel stressed. This leads to the left frontal lobe in your brain processing much of the incoming information. This part of your brain is programmed to interpret information as a threat.


So you will even see offers of help as a threat and in a negative light.


Planning and prioritisation

Just as bad, you lose your ability to plan long term, in fact you become very focussed on the short term and are often unable to set goals. Your planning and time management skills are drastically reduced.



You tend to focus very much on yourself and not think about others, which leads to not involving others and communicating poorly, if at all. Your views of what is important get distorted.


So that covers points 1-4.


Not learning

What’s the excuse for not learning from past changes? I’m not sure there is one. Perhaps it’s that the pace of change is now so relentless that there is not time.


You can mitigate against all of these problems with better planning and the simple expedient of spending a few moments looking at what you did and identify (writing down) what you can do better next time.


Try it. It really does work.