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Leading Employees During Change - 23 June 2009

The man in this photo is university professor, Dr Randy Pausch. In 2006 he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Nine months before he died, he delivered an inspirational presentation to teachers and students titled ‘The Last Lecture’ that became one of the most watched videos on YouTube.

When patients are told they’re terminally ill they go through five psychological stages, as pioneered by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s. Just like patients who learn they’re going to lose their life, employees resist change because they fear they’re going to lose something of significance. As a result, they go through the same five stages when faced with sudden change.

 

Denial: The first stage is a defense. Patients don’t believe this is happening to them, and employees refuse to consider the upcoming change to be real. They become withdrawn.

Anger: Feelings of rage set in. Patients get angry when they can’t continue to deny the inevitable, and employees start to feel victimised. They apportion blame and ask, “Why me?”

Bargaining: Hope takes hold. Patients try to negotiate with a higher power, and employees feel a similar sense of hope, where they desire to have a say in what happens.

Depression: A greater understanding develops. Patients become disconnected as they start to grieve, and employees become sad as they adopt a “why bother” mentality.

Acceptance: This stage is about peace. Patients come to terms with what’s going to happen, and employees start to realise that they’re going to be okay.

In Dr Pausch's landmark speech, one of his most profound statements was: "We cannot change the cards we are dealt; just how we play the hand." Perhaps the position you hold in your company is one where you also can't change the cards you're dealt from the powers that be. But here's how to play your hand during each stage of the change process.

  • Denial: Articulate the reasons for the change and the benefits for your employees.
  • Anger: Genuinely seek your employees’ feedback and listen to their concerns.
  • Bargaining: Get employees to influence the change so they feel they're a part of it.
  • Depression: Provide support, guidance, and information during the transition.
  • Acceptance: Celebrate any positive outcomes from the change as they arise.

The one theme that weaves throughout each stage is honest communication. That really is the key to leading employees during change. Dr Pausch summarised this point towards the end of his speech: “How do you get people to help you? You can't get there alone. You get people to help you by telling the truth. Being earnest. I'll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short term. Earnest is long term.” .

 

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