Self-awareness during times of change

Self-awareness during times of change

Rollercoaster rides with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

There's a maxim, in the world of people leading, that change will always incur a drop in performance for the people and teams affected by it. Like a lot of maxims this started out as an observation, which solidified into a guideline then hardened into a rule and finally is often disregarded as a trope. I've long been interested in the truth behind this and in understanding how to help bring people through it. It was this interest, coupled with being in a job where I saw this daily, that led me to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the model she developed.



The Kübler-Ross model deals with the stages of grief, specifically around the death or loss of a loved one. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross worked extensively with the terminally ill, motivated by the lack of guidance she saw in medical schools. She introduced the model in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

The model posits, from her observations of people faced with loss, that there are 5 specific stages on the way to acceptance. There is no duration associated with each and people may stay stuck in one place for a long time and require help in moving past it. The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Denial is the minds need to provide a cushion for the shock of the loss.

The avoidance and the confusion will very naturally translate to Anger and the desire to find some responsible agency.

Whether a specific or nebulous agent is found or not, it's natural to attempt Bargaining directly or indirectly to try to fill or undo the loss. 

The nature of time being unidirectional this bargaining is usually in vain which leads to a period of Depression where the actuality of the loss triggers feelings of powerlessness in the face of change.

Lastly the mind can move to Acceptance, looking away from the past to the present or even casting for possibilities in the future, embracing the loss as reality. 

As I mentioned there's not a given timescale for when people progress through the stages and, in response to initial criticism, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross modified the model to indicate that not everyone passes through every stage. However it functions as a very important guide for both the bereaved and the counsellor as to what hope lies ahead and when to offer what support or solace.


"Umm... wow..."

It's natural, especially if it's your first encounter with the model, to wonder what on earth this has to do with you and with our daily lives at work, at home, with friends etc... 

The fact is that we experience the processing of grief and loss every time we experience a change. Change pulls us out of the autopilot of our expectations and puts us squarely back in touch with reality. I've witnessed this (and the subsequent process that conforms to the model) countless times in a place that taught me a lot about how people handle change, loss and grief. The Genius Bar at an Apple Store.


"What do you mean it's out of warranty!"

It is 2004. I am standing behind the solid wood of the Genius Bar in Regent Street listening to an interaction between a customer and one of my extremely patient and experienced Genius'...*

Genius: "So I understand that your iPod has started skipping tracks and restarting intermittently?"

Customer: "Yes, it's been fine but just last week it began misbehaving"

G: "I can hear the drive inside clicking as it tries to start"**

C: "Oh? What caused that?"

G: "Looks like it's had a hard drop sometime, there's a big dent on the corner of the case and some scratch marks right where the drive is housed..."

This is the moment. It's clear it's been damaged and that's the most likely cause of the problem. The customer has just been connected with reality. They knew it had been damaged and they knew it was the cause of the fault and they knew that it would not be covered by the warranty for repair. But the mind surpasses these unpleasant facts. The conversation after this point was, in so many cases, a classic demonstration of the Kübler-Ross grief cycle playing out:

  • "I didn't drop it, I don't know how it got like that. It's not my fault it's failing...". Denial, much?

  • "I cannot believe you're telling its my fault, that's outrageous!!! Your company makes too much money!". Anger. Often followed by a request to see a manager. Enter me, stage left...

  • "Surely there's something you can do, I just bought it and it's a lot of money... can you do it cheaper?". The Bargaining process begins.

  • "How could I have been so careless?". I will leave it to the reader to imagine the facial expression depicting Depression.

  • "Do you take American Express?". Perhaps that's a bit glib but it demonstrates the point of Acceptance.

Well that's easy then, right? There's been an emotional journey but an important lesson has been learned. The customer has portable music again and the Genius is due a lunch break to let the tension drop away. However there are many such scenarios where the customer gets stuck at a stage of their journey and needs assistance in progressing. To do this you need to understand where they are and where they need to get to, and knowing the Kübler-Ross model is immensely valuable. 

You're also probably thinking that comparing the loss of a loved one to the loss of a small electronic device is either horribly misjudged or deeply insensitive. I quite understand and would agree if it were not for a curious observation I've made. I've seen and personally experienced a lot of loss and grief, as many of us have. I've also seen a lot of much less vital or consequential loss. What I've observed is that there seems to a 'top level' for what triggers the grief cycle and it's not proportional to the size of the loss, its more about how much it disturbs someones reality. It's their response to change that determines how they will behave. As an observer of emotional response to change you have to shelve your assessment of someones loss and be sensitive to the value that the lost person/device/reality had for them.


Jumped or pushed?


Often I would be called in to deal with customers whose interaction with the Genius' has reached an impasse. Once I'd let the customer express their feelings I'd find that they are effectively stuck at one of the stages usually either Denial or Anger.

Anger is actually the easier of the two to deal with. You need to give room for it to flood out and have it's moment, it passes and then you can talk. One tip I can give is to remove yourself as the target of the anger. A simple way to do this is to sit the person down next to you so you're facing in the same direction and any problems are out in front of you both, the anger will direct itself toward the problem then not toward you. 

Denial is harder. This isn't the time to offer solace, sympathy or solutions. It's a time for clear, opinion-free communication of the situation and for leaving a little quiet for reflection to set in. The reason it's the most difficult place to move from is that the next place is Anger which, however brief, can be scary to experience on both sides. But herein lies the key, if you're aware the person is stuck in denial, once you've given them every opportunity to move on, then you may have to trigger anger. They need to go through it and pass out the other side before they have a chance to reach acceptance. 

This could be verbally pushing them with an outrageous statement or opinion, whatever breaks them out of their denial. I would be misleading you if I said this wasn't, on occasion, extremely satisfying.


And this is relevant, how exactly?

Obligatory 'This Is Fine' GIF

Obligatory 'This Is Fine' GIF

In software development, we strive to work in the agile way. One aspect of this is that we try something and test it and see if it works, and if not we try something else. It means we might not know exactly what feature we are going to build next until the data comes in and sometimes it means a thing we spent our time, care and effort on gets sidelined. In short, you're experiencing a lot of change. 

Change can also be a colleague leaving, your personalised mug going missing or your job changing as the tides of technology shift. The important thing is to take some time to think about where you are, how you're feeling and what change you're experiencing. Generate some self-awareness. Think about where you might be on the cycle of dealing with change. Think about the image at top of this post showing the grief cycle and reflect:

  • If you're in denial of a change, ask for more information and clearer communication as to why it's happening.

  • Do you feel anger about a change? Let yourself be angry, communicate it without anger and then let it go.

  • If you're trying to negotiate or bargain about the effect of the change, or are unhappy or depressed about how it affects you, seek out support from your manager, colleagues or friends.

  • Lastly if you need to find a way to acceptance, reach out for guidance on how to get there.

So, if you find yourself dealing with change and you recognise it: Raise a glass, tip your hat or spare a thought for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the work she did to help people reach acceptance and peace of mind.

* Yes, Genius', Apple was very clear that they are not Genii.
** This was 2004, Solid state drives were not a thing yet.

Apparently it's called micro-transportation - 1/5

Apparently it's called micro-transportation - 1/5

Democracy in teams doesn't fix everything

Democracy in teams doesn't fix everything