Understanding the Kübler-Ross Change Curve in the Workplace

Updated June 24, 2022

Change is necessary to continue to be successful in your industry, especially in an ever-evolving market. From operational changes to workforce changes, these updates may directly affect employees on your team who may need some guidance to accept and feel comfortable with the change. Providing encouragement and supporting team members as they process the change can help your workforce operate more smoothly and accept change easier in the future.

In this article, we explain what the change curve is, the benefits of understanding it and how you can effectively guide your team through transitions.

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What is the change curve?

The change curve is a popular model that is used to understand the stages of personal transition and organizational change. In the workplace, the change curve can help predict how employees will react to change, such as when an employee switches teams or increases their responsibilities on a certain project.  By understanding the change curve, you can successfully help, support and guide your team through changes, making their transition as smooth and manageable as possible.

The change curve is based on a model of the five stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance–originally described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Since then, the stages have been utilized and adapted into the Kübler-Ross change curve, which individuals and organizations alike use to help people understand their reactions to significant change or loss.

Related: 8 Proven Change Management Models for the Workplace

7 stages of the change curve

While there are numerous versions of the curve and individuals may react differently based on personality and experience, most change curve models follow this general pattern:

A general graph of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve
  1. Shock: Suprise or shock at the event

  2. Denial: Disbelief, looking for evidence that it isn’t true

  3. Frustration: Recognition that things are different, sometimes angry.

  4. Depression: Low mood, lacking in energy

  5. Experiment: Initial engagement with new situation

  6. Decision: Learning how to work in new situation, feeling more positive

  7. Integration: Changes integrated, a renewed individual

Stage 1: Shock 

When a change is first introduced, people’s first reaction is usually shock as they respond to the challenge to the status quo. In the workplace, this short-lived stage of shock can result in a loss of productivity due to a lack of information and fear of the unknown. This stage demands communication so that employees can have full knowledge and can have their questions answered.

Stage 2: Denial

After the initial shock has passed, people commonly experience denial. Employees could express that the change isn’t needed and ask why the change is being implemented. Some people could convince themselves that the change won’t happen or won’t affect them. There may be an uptick in performance levels as people try to carry on as they always have. 

Stage 3: Frustration or anger

Anger or frustration often follows shock and denial. Individuals may begin to feel fear and wish to assign blame. Performance levels start to drop during this phase. Organizations should understand that anger is a natural reaction to major upheaval. Managers should focus on providing clear support and communication during this stage to help employees manage this stage.

Stage 4: Depression

The lowest point of the change curve comes when the anger begins to wean off and the individual realizes that the change is inevitable. During the depression stage, morale and energy levels are commonly low, and self-doubt and anxiety levels can peak.

Stage 5: Experiment

At this stage, people begin to accept the situation as they test and explore what the changes mean. While some may accept the change because they are forced to, others may learn to embrace the change positively. During this phase, overall productivity begins to improve. 

Stage 6: Decision

In the decision stage, productivity continues to rise as people continue to learn how to work in a changed environment. They not only accept the changes but also start to embrace them. Only when people get to this stage can the organization celebrate and start to reap the rewards of new job descriptions, ideas and innovation.

Stage 7: Integration

At this final stage, the change is now normal, and part of the new status quo. Managers and individuals can use this cycle of change to inform their decisions and responses the next time the organization faces a transition. 

Related: Tips for Leading Change Within Your Team

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Coaching employees through the change curve

Follow these steps to effectively help your team—and perhaps yourself—through the various reactions they may have to change:

Explain the change

With any major change, employees may be confused or surprised. Managers can ease these uncomfortable feelings by explaining more about the change, including the reasons for it. Consider conducting a meeting where you're able to address all of your team members, answer questions they may have and share the benefits of the change so they can feel more connected to the change. To help ease your team into change, think about how you can share the information without overwhelming them with too many details.

Related: How To Create an Employee Transition Plan (With Example)

Anticipate negative reactions

One of the stages of the change curve explores the possibility for employees to react negatively, like with anger or resentment, toward the change. If you are prepared for this possibility, you are likely in a better position to help your employee rather than react negatively yourself. Remind yourself that a range of emotions is common and providing the guidance your employee needs to process the change can help them graduate from the emotion and feel more motivated in their work.

Provide training

Training can help employees feel more comfortable with the change, and better prepared to work through the change, too. Although organizational change is sometimes necessary, you can ease the process by establishing training and letting employees know that training will be available to help explain a new process or help them feel comfortable with their new responsibilities. Consider the different types of training that various employees may need, and build programs that appeal to all team members who are affected by the change.

Ask employees what they need

Because each employee can react to change differently, consider asking them how they feel and what they need to be more comfortable with the change. They may need further explanation, reassurance that the change isn't a result of their work performance, someone to listen as they share their frustrations or additional training to fully comprehend the changes.

By speaking with your staff members, you may also naturally develop strategies that support change in the future, helping ease employees quicker and more smoothly when necessary. Collaborating in this way can help an employee feel like a valuable member of the workforce, which can aid in their transition.

Related: How To Boost Employee Morale

Evaluate the outcome

After your team has processed and accepted the change, it's important to review the outcome of the change so you can collectively prepare for the next one. For some employees, this may be the first major change they've experienced in their career, so consider how you can ensure them that change is inevitable and that you're committed to providing a positive experience for everyone on the team. Ask for feedback through employee surveys or informal discussions so you can improve change processes later and be better able to manage the emotions and reactions of employees.

You may find that there's room for improvement with each organizational change as long as you're open to learning from the experience. You can take note of employees’ reactions to guide you through the next change, what worked during this change and the opportunities you have for improvement.

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