Dealing with Change: The role of loss (part two)

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Introduction: Doesn’t it seem to you that the pace of change is becoming more rapid? I have found it useful to consider change not as a unitary event, but as two separate processes that happen more or less in tandem. When I am asked to change, I have to take on something new, but I also have to let go of something. I have found it useful to consider those two things separately. I also have found that those people who are pushing the change often want to focus on the new and ignore or downplay the old. This imbalance is often a source of resistance. This resistance cannot be overcome by pushing harder for the new. In fact pushing harder often strengthens the resistance.

There is also the issue of difference in how people react to change in general. Some people welcome change and adapt quickly, others move more slowly and some will fight to the bitter end. Recognizing the difference and dealing with each group individually is critical to success in implementing change. This is particularly true for change that is not your idea, you are just asked to “make it happen”. I would like to take some time to deal with each of these three issues over the next few days.

PART TWO: The role of loss

Adopting something new always involves giving something up. If I accept a promotion, my relationship with my coworkers will change. If I learn a new way of doing something, I lose the comfort of knowing what I am doing. In the first case, the loss may be long lasting, whereas in the second, it may be short lived. I may get laid off from my job or I may misplace my car keys. The first may be life altering while the second may be no more than an annoyance. What all changes have in common is some element of loss. Large or small, short or long, intense or not, it is still a loss and will result in some measure of grief.

The steps of grieving are well documented but some examples may prove useful. The first stage is generally acknowledged to be denial. This feeling of shock may last years in the case of the loss of a loved one or it may be as brief as losing your car keys and saying “they must be here somewhere’. The second phase involves some measure of anger and guilt. “why me” and “what did I do” are familiar refrains. The third phase is bargaining in which the aggrieved person looks for some way to change or alter the loss in some way. For the soldier in the fox hole, it may be asking God to spare his life and promising to attend church regularly the rest of his life. It may be as simple as vowing to make another set if they will magically appear. The fourth phase is depression with similar symptoms to clinical depression. This lack of energy and willingness to socialize can be debilitating in the case of large losses. The final phase is acceptance which is continuing with life without what was there before. It may mean building new relationships or polishing new skills.

While the phases may vary from person to person and from time to time, they are a useful tool in diagnosing problems in implementing change. In the case of losing car keys it is usually a few minutes or until the keys are found. For those who have lost their jobs through lay offs, the grieving process may take as much as two years. For those who have survived lay offs it may take longer. The person out of work usually finds other work. The person who survives the lay off may never recover the sense of security that was present before. The intensity of the grief reflects the value of what was lost to the person who lost it. For many people losing their job means not only their lively hood but in many cases a large portion of their identity.

It should be obvious that generalities do not fit. It is important to ask the person what loss a change means to them. Acknowledging the losses does not in any way imply that the change will not go forward. However¸ not acknowledging the loss is an excellent way to insure long lasting resistance to this change and decreased willingness to change in the future. The general strategy is to ask those involved in a change what losses this implies for them. Many times simply letting people know that a sense of loss is normal is a large step to lowering resistance. In a future post I will discuss some specific strategies for dealing with various stages of grief.

Part three: Promoting new ideas will post tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Dr. Stephen Earnest is a partner at Earnest and Treff Consulting and associate faculty in IUPUI’s Master of Science in Adult Education program.  His professional commitments center around ways to increase understanding of how work groups work by teaching Participation Training. If you are interested in having him come to your business, please contact him by email at