Does the Change Curve exist?

Change Curve

An example change curve diagram

What is the Change Curve

I am sure many of you will have heard or know of the change curve. This is the idea that all humans go through a series of emotions as a result of a change. The curve shows the different emotions and plots time (x-axis) against a number of different measures including performance, morale, impact, and competence of the individual affected by change.

The original work for this idea was carried out by a now famous doctor, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, working with patients who have been diagnosed as terminally ill. The emotional journey was identified by Dr Kübler-Ross and has born her name since.

However, a journalist has recently pointed out that the application of this emotional journey to general change is an extension of a single piece of evidence, which has not been tested by subsequent trials, into a taken-for-granted rule. This is an excellent example of induction (see our earlier posting about the Hawthorn effect). It is just bad science? Here are the arguments for and against using this theory.

Argument for the Change Curve

The emotional journey, especially the negative emotions part, is easily recognised. Many managers see their staff exhibit these emotions during a change. This seems to make the idea ubiquitous. Managers also realise that staff will not change until they have moved beyond the bottom of the curve and begin to accept the change. This is the basis of many change readiness tests; and they seem to work.

Argument against the Change Curve

The application of the basic idea is widely corrupted. Just google “kubler-ross change curve” to see a miriad different versions of the curve, the journey and the emotions. Note the left hand axis has several labels including, morale and performance. So which change curve did you think you were following?

The basic research was based on patients coming to grips with probably the most profound change any individual can face: their own death. Is this the same as facing a new IT system at work? Is there any evidence that the curve applies (or can be extended) to all change from this extreme example? (there is no reliable evidence).

The original research uses the patients own evaluation of their self worth as the left hand axis. This is a well understood concept in psychology. Many published versions of the curve use performance as the label on the axis — what is the direct experimental link between an individuals self worth and their performance? Performance is a useful managerial concept; it is not the same as the psychological concept of self worth.

What can we conclude?

The Change Curve might be a useful management tool to help us explain and plan a change and the impact it will have on individuals. Use of the Change Curve needs to have a healthy dose of scepticism about its universal application and is ability to help with less dramatic change in the workplace. If it helps you then by all means use it — just don’t rely on it being a universal truth.

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