The Change Curve is one of the most well-known models in business change. However, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. We have to understand and use the model properly for it to help, and not hinder, our change.

This means we have to understand its history, context, strengths and limitations. Then we can put the pieces together and use the model effectively. Used well, the Change Curve can help us to support people through our changes and ultimately realise the benefits we desire.

A bit of history

The Change Curve is based on Kubler-Ross’ Grief Curve.

This was developed in the 1960s by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the emotional phases individuals pass through when faced with trauma or serious illness.

Since then, there have been many other studies of how people react to different changes – from losing a limb to taking a new job. The vast majority of these outline a similar emotional journey to Kubler-Ross.

All this research led to the development of the Change Curve, shown in the diagram below.

Change Curve

Why is the Change Curve important in business change?

The Change Curve shows how we, as individuals, react emotionally to major disruptive change in the workplace.

Our reaction includes a drop in moral, energy and performance. During this phase, people are less effective than normal in dealing with life’s routine challenges. The emotions experienced during this phase – anger, bargaining and depression – may result in resistant behaviours from our stakeholders which damage the change.

Therefore, the Change Curve is evidence that we need a strong focus on supporting people for our changes to be successful.

How can we use the Change Curve?

We can use the Change Curve to plan interventions to support people during change. There are many tried and tested activities which will help move people through the curve to the point where they are ready to accept the change and alter their ways of working. These include:

  • communicating why the change has to happen
  • describing a compelling vision of the future
  • listening to concerns and supporting people through loss
  • allowing time for people to ask questions about the change
  • coaching and mentoring individuals through the change
  • involving people in designing and moving towards the future

The Change Curve also predicts a decline in performance during the anger, blame and depression phases. We need to plan mitigations so that this performance dip does not threaten either the success of the change or the continuation of business as usual whilst the change is happening.

Other uses for the Change Curve

We can also use the Change Curve to help with specific issues we often face during organisational change, including:

Focusing on the emotional side of change

Many organisations focus solely on fact, figures and process. In these cultures, business change is often sidelined and anything to do with feelings or emotions is seen as ‘soft and fluffy’. You can use the change curve to focus your leaders’ attention on the need for business change activities – it is proven that people react emotionally to change so these reactions need to be managed alongside more tangible issues.

Engaging line managers

In many organisations, line managers do not know how to support their staff during change. Line managers are also a powerful group of stakeholders needing specific attention and engagement. The Change Curve can be used as a practical tool to engage and involve your line managers with your change – many of the tried and tested activities listed above are best carried out by line managers, so use them to empower and engage.

Including stakeholders in planning and design

Stakeholder ownership and buy-in are key elements of successful change. However, leaders still tend to plan and design change without adequate stakeholder engagement. So, you can use the Change Curve as evidence for the need to involve people early on in the change – discourage your leaders from planning change in secret, or using ‘experts’ who do not involve the people who are actually affected. 

Things to watch out for with Change Curve

People often misunderstand the Change Curve- which can have significant implications to the success of their changes. I regularly see a couple of common errors which I have outlined below.

Never assume that people will move through the curve without specific interventions to support them

The negative effects of the Change Curve can be huge. I am often called into organisations to help when stakeholder morale is so low that behaviours have become destructive and are affecting the success of the change. For example:

  • productivity has dropped and business as usual is threatened
  • sickness absence is rising
  • people are leaving the organisation
  • union action or unwelcome media attention is threatened

I often find in these cases that the tried and tested activities that help support people through the curve, outlined above, have been neglected. Leaders have assumed that people will naturally move through the anger, blame and depression stages as time passes, which is simple not true. The consequences of this misunderstanding can easily result in your change failing.

Don’t assume all unhappiness and resistance is due to the curve

I often see situations where the change curve is being used as an excuse for badly managed change. Leaders of the change put unwanted stakeholder reactions down to expected emotions of ‘denial’ or ‘anger’. However, people are actually unhappy about obvious flaws in the design, planning or implementation of the change.We will all resist if we are made to feel stupid, threatened or disempowered, whether we happen to be going through the Change Curve or not.

What do I do next?

The change curve should be used as a basis for your change plan. All the tried and tested change management activities listed above should be part of any change. But bear in mind that change and people are complex. You will probably need to use other relevant tools and interventions to enhance the model depending on your specific circumstances.

Read a short case study on how business change support was given to middle managers and staff who were struggling with a major transformation in a large, complex organisation.