#13 Emotional cycles of change

18 June 2019 | 3 min read


You may be familiar with the “change curve” which is an adapted form of the 5 phases model described by the American psychologist Elisabeth Küble-Ross. It is found in every book on change management.

The author describes the phases of emotional processing of grief: 1. Denial, 2. Annoyance, 3. Negotiation, 4. Depression/Pain 5. Acceptance. What you may not be aware of is that this curve was originally developed by Kübler-Ross to describe the emotional progression of cancer patients in the late stage of their illness.

It is interesting to note that this model can indeed be observed in some change processes, an indication of how drastic some changes can be perceived by employees. Of course, change processes are not about life and death, but looking at Kübler-Ross’s description can help us understand what happens emotionally when a person undergoes a major change that they perceive as dramatic.

But there are also less dramatic circumstances where you can observe similar emotional waves. For example there is much that can be learned about the emotional side of OD from the experiences of individuals who live abroad for a few years. So let´s have a look at that.

Wether they notice it or not. People who start a journey of living and working outside of their original culture go through different mental and emotional phases. After three to five years, I have experienced it myself, they have changed so much that they no longer notice the change they have undergone. Mostly people around them would see it before they notice themselves.

The mental and emotional evolution can be described as follows:

  • The preparation phase is experienced differently depending on whether the change was voluntary or forced. To some, it is first honeymoon time, in which events are seen vividly and with positive images and hope. To the others, it is a dark time full of cruel fantasies and nervousness. Some are happy, others are worried. These differences can be observed within a family moving abroad together as not every family member experiences the anticipation in the same way. 
  • Then everybody is confronted with a new reality in the first year. You get to know the new environment, you recognise what works and above all what doesn’t work, what you like and don’t like. Individuals experience an emotional roller coaster called culture shock. They sometimes miss what they left behind and can even consider an early return.
  • Those who haven’t left in the first year,  generally adapt in the next two years. Social contacts are crucial in this time.
  • In the fourth year, individuals have come to know how things work. They have re-equipped themselves, changed, and partly forgotten what it was like in the beginning.
  • Final adaptation to the new routine often leads to a desire to stay even longer.

Your employees are no different when it comes to major organisational changes. You will experience a similar emotional and mental cycle with any important change or restructuring. It is human and not a cause for concern. It is important that you become aware of where you and your employees are, as you move through this cycle.

Other considerations  for your OD:

  • The more often you go through change cycles, the shorter they become, i.e. the faster the adjustment occurs provided the change process is run professionally and you give people time to experience the cycle to its end.
  • The length of the cycles depends on the extent of the change. If you are from southern Germany, it takes longer to get used to India than to northern Germany and the other way around.

The difficulty adapting also depends on whether the change was voluntarily or involuntarily. As a rule, spouses who did not fully agree with the assignment and who go along only for the partner’s sake tend to find it more challenging than employees who are voluntarily assigned and are very busy anyway with their new work environment. The same applies inside companies. Employees who were allowed to help shape the restructuring adapt more easily than those who simply have to accept it. It is recommended here to turn as many concerned parties as possible into participants to allow an early buy in and a smoother process.

In any case you will have waves of emotions. They just don´t have to be that high and you can help your people and yourself surf them more gracefully if you understand them better.

You find more advice in my Corporate Coaching!


Written by Drissia Schroeder-Hohenwarth

Transformative Coach for Leaders, Teams and Organisations with a fascination for the endless potential of the mind.

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