I'm Not Afraid of Change, I'm Just Grieving

by Paula Moran


Who would have thought a Tuesday morning would revolutionize how I considered change?

Many people fear change. Spencer Johnson, M.D. immortalized this fear in his best seller Who Moved My Cheese. After reading that book I'd always thought that some people are resistant to change because they are happy with the status quo and have different levels of fear about leaving it. Per that understanding, to help a person prepare for change is best done by helping them not to fear the change. If people just understood how good the future will be they would not fear and be resistant to change.

There simply a component of change I'd never considered, the loss.

One Tuesday morning I attended a presentation by Eugene Dilan titled "Engaging Change So You Can Thrive." In his presentation I came to realize that change has two parts. Change involves moving to something new, but in order to do this people must also give something up. People who struggle not so much with the new but that second part of giving up what they currently have.  

Consider the upgrade from Windows XP to 7. Many offices have forced this change upon their workers over the past few years. Windows 7 has many features that make it superior to XP. But consider the XP user who has perfectly arranged her icons, memorized the location of everything, and has her background customized exactly the way she likes it. When such an XP user upgrades she will experience a better system. But she has to give up her familiarity and comfort with XP which may cause her grief. 

The grief model from Kubler-Ross includes the stages of (in no particular order):

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Sadness/Depression
  • Acceptance

During the upgrade from XP to 7 you might hear:

  • "No my computer works just fine. George from IT does not need to come in this week. I'm just too busy."
  • "IT hates our department. Why else would they make us upgrade first?"
  • "XP worked so much better than this crap. Why did Microsoft have to change everything."
  • "We should check with ACME Inc. about the finance software. If they say it still works on XP we can convince Linda from IT to get 7 off our computers."

Eventually you may hear, "Windows 7 is superior to XP you should get excited about your upgrade.

When making a change you should still tout its positive effects to gain buy in. Instead of focusing exclusively on how wonderful Windows 7 is, it may help to also acknowledge the grief and pain caused by giving up XP. For example,

  • Sorry they won't have your background in 7. I hope you'll be able to find something you like just as much.
  • It's okay to be angry. It's very frustrating to have to learn new software.
  • It would be nice if Microsoft had kept that feature.

Changing software systems at work are not the same level of grief as loosing a family member. Sometimes people are actually thrilled about the change. But be aware that significant grief may be present in some stakeholders, and if you do not deal with it that stakeholder could derail the change. For example, seven years ago Pat established a process for cross departmental scheduling. He did a lot of research. It took several weeks to develop, and several hours to train the departments. His process saved many hours of work, and he received a lot of recognition from coworkers. Recently your organization has purchased new software that replaces Pat's system. If you have been tasked with implementing the new software and training the staff it will be in your best interest to address the grief Pat may feel over the loss of a system he had worked so hard to create. You don't have to be a grief counselor. Simply acknowledging to Pat that  the retirement of his old system must be hard on him may be enough. Ignoring Pat's grief may create a disgruntled stakeholder causing you headaches.

Because projects are finite endeavors, project managers are inevitably the bearers of change. Project problems can stem from stakeholder resistance to change. Your stakeholders may not even realize their resistance stems from grief for what they are loosing. Addressing the loss from the change and adding grief coping strategies to your available tools may help in situations when regular change strategies are not working. 

I encourage you to to share change management strategies that have worked for you in the past.