Speaker: Cycles of grief happen with changes at work, too

Workshop on navigating change guides leaders on best practices

Change happens, and in the past few years, it seems as though change has accelerated.

In the presentation “How to Succeed in Times of Change” at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference, held Jan. 6-9 in Chicago, Jackie Martin, founder of A Matter of Motivation and an executive trainer, delved into the best ways that leaders can navigate their teams through times of transition.

“We want to think all this rapid change is new, but as humans, we have always experienced this,” Martin said. “Some embrace the new, but by and large, most people struggle with it.

“The truth is, personal change must precede organizational change. Your practice will never change until the people in it change. So you need to understand the human side of change. There’s always a Fred—the person who drags their feet—but unless you get that person along, the change will be really rocky.”

Martin said it’s important to recognize that during many of the changes people go through, they experience grief, often in sequential and predictable stages. The stages are loss, doubt, discomfort, discovery, understanding, and integration. Each stage has associated feelings, thoughts, and behaviors along with its own upsides and downsides. There’s no set duration for how long it takes to go through each stage; each happens in its own time. But there are specific coping skills that can be learned to assist people in moving forward to the next stage.

During the first stage, when change is announced, the dominant emotion is fear because people don’t know what’s happening.

“If you’re no longer the expert, people are afraid of being no longer relevant, for example,” Martin said. “Sometimes we can dip into this so long and get paranoid and take on a victim mentality. You have to channel that fear into something more appropriate. You have to move beyond that.”

Doing so requires distinguishing between real and imagined fears. That can be done by asking questions such as the following:

  • What’s the worst that could happen? Can I live with that?
  • What’s most likely to happen? How will I deal with that?
  • What are my specific top four concerns?

In the second stage, employees may be angry and still cling to “the old way was better.” They are operating on opinions, hearsay, and gossip, when what they need is information—to move from doubt to reality. Martin advises that even if leaders may not have all of the information, it’s important to still say something.

“The worst thing you can do is give information on a need-to-know basis or have closed-door meetings,” she said. Instead, consider what facts are currently known, when and how you will get more, and what you would tell someone in your shoes to do.

After that, when leaders actually make the change in stage three, employees may feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Productivity will naturally drop, and leaders should be patient because people are learning something new. Leaders should continue to point out the positive aspects of change and use this time to motivate. Martin says this is a good opportunity to have a movie night or a check-in every day to encourage the team.

Stage four is when more buy-in has occurred. New ideas come about after employees see the benefits of the new way of doing things, but Martin cautions that decisions do need to be made, and everyone needs to move on from just brainstorming.

Not until stage five is when things finally start getting done the new way. People feel confident and determined as they now start to own the change. Celebrating victories, big and small, is important to keep the momentum going.

Finally, stage six is integration. The team is working efficiently and effectively, and compassion is needed to help employees who aren’t quite as far along. Remaining flexible is key, Martin says, “so you’re ready for the next change.”

Remember, Martin says: “When you announce new change to the rest of the team, they all go in stage one, loss. We look at that behavior and go, ‘What’s the matter with you people?’ But we forget, we had time to think about it and had moved ourselves around to stage four but didn’t give them a chance to do it.”

Repeating a quote attributed to Socrates, she added, “The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting to keep the old, but on building the new.”

A version of this article appears in the Feb. 15, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.