Kubler-Ross Change Curve

Change is an upsetting time for people as it can introduce a variety of uncertainty.

The ability to manage the different stages of change – and the manifestation of the behaviors and reactions associated with change – is critical.

Understanding the effects of the personal adjustment is critical to providing structure for employees experiencing this upheaval.

In all organizations, there is an acute need for successfully shepherding people through times of change in order to minimize losses in productivity, engagement and overall morale.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve is a model for navigating the transitions between when a change is initiated to reaching the organization’s overall goal. Use Kubler-Ross’s research to understand how people navigate change. Building structures to help people move through change quickens the adaptation process as many people experience feelings of fear and loss during the change.

What is the Kubler-Ross Change Curve?

  • The Kubler-Ross Change Curve is a paradigm for navigating the transitions between when a change is initiated to reaching the organization’s overall goal.
  • Organizations use Kubler-Ross’s research to understand how people navigate change.
  • Managing change in this context means understanding where people are along the change curve and helping them get from the death of the old ways to the birth of the new ways.

There are predominantly two routes in which leaders can manage change – the individual and team perspectives.

Right arrowIndividual

The individual perspective is understanding how a person experiences and transitions through the various stages of change and modification. Drilling down to the individual’s needs during times of transition allows leaders to empathize, guide, and promote healthy habits in dealing with adjustments, no matter how minor or major.

Right arrowTeam

The team perspective is different as it is collective. Setting goals and marking progress for teams during times of change builds togetherness and forges bonds between team members. Managing the change process allows the team to experience change in a positive way that builds confidence when undergoing inevitable future changes.

Understanding how to manage change starts with knowing what the definition of change management is. To manage change, one must effectively help people and organizations move from a current state to a desirable future state.

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Managing change effectively means helping people and organizations transition from the ‘current state’ to the ‘future state’ in a way that minimizes productivity losses, customer impact and employee turnover.

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Minimizing losses in productivity, retaining employees, and having little impact on customers are objective measurables to understanding how well a company has managed and navigated the change process. It also means the speedy adoption and utilization of the change throughout the organization. Change quickly adopted and implemented has a direct relationship with the objective success of the process.


Not all organizations effectively manage change, yet all organizations know change is inevitable.

Understanding the change management process is the first step for organizations accepting adaptation’s inevitable impact upon business.

Stages of Change

Change is like most things in life – it is a gradual process filled with different signposts along the way. These signposts are essential for marking important parts of the change journey.

Knowing what to expect is a key part of understanding the process of change and its successful navigation. Organizations are not different. They need these signposts to judge how close they are to the eventual destination.

The change process is a journey. As people progress through this journey they move from endings, through transitions to new beginnings. Perhaps the statement is oversimplified, because though one physically moves to a different point on the change continuum, psychologically they are still moving through the process.

The oldest change model is the Transition Model created by William Bridges. In his book, Managing Transitions, Bridges posited three stages of change. Bridges used the three stages of change to develop the idea of major transition being a journey. His work is notable because he spoke of the internal processes affecting change in individuals. Bridges stated the journey moved from endings through transitions to new beginnings.


Bridges said the access to impacting and speeding people through the hange process was to focus on the “transition.” Circumstances could not necessarily be changed, but the internal dynamics of the person experiencing the change could, in fact, be managed.

Taking the idea of understanding the transitional nature of the change to a new level was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

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Who is Kubler-Ross?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist best known for her paradigm on grieving. In 1969, Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death and Dying, shook up the academic psychology world and its understanding of grief.

Prior to Kubler-Ross’s book, dying patients generally left the world alone. There was no concept of pain management and speaking of death was generally taboo in society.

Kubler-Ross’s motivation was reconciling Western medicine’s unsympathetic treatment of dying patients with her experiences in her native country of Switzerland.

The Swiss culture treats both birth and death as normal parts of life. In the Swiss cultural tradition, family members surround the dying relative as him of her passes away. However, this practice was not common in the United States at the time.

Kubler-Ross’s work began with interviewing patients in 1967 and she discovered that patients craved communication. She also reported that patients were not so much scared of dying as they were the unknown. Kubler-Ross discovered that patients and their family members were more readily willing to accept the inevitability of death after passing through the now famous Five Stages.

The five stages are denialangerbargainingdepression and acceptance


Over the years, her model of how people navigate death and dying has been modified. Naturally, this model is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged its fluidity as she aged; at the time of her death, she claimed to have bypassed the first four stages and had reached the point of acceptance.

Over time, Kubler-Ross’s research initially worked in the field of death and dying. Since then, it has been expanded to different fields including business, finance, and international relations. Change and transition is an inevitable part of life, just as death. Therefore, applying Kubler-Ross’s principles is wise for organizations of all sizes.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve in detail

(View Full Infographic)

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve is akin to her work on the Five Stages of Grief. In his work, organizational researcher, Deone Zell (2003) showed that large organizations staffed with specialized professionals are less likely to accept change easily.

Autonomous professionals are keen to continue performing tasks for specific purposes in the same fashion. Having to change processes, purposes, or other types of working conditions creates disharmony and puts the organization on a roadmap of change.

There are six different phrases a person moves through when facing change. Kubler-Ross labeled the phases as Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

The areas on the change curve appear self-explanatory, but for change leaders, it is imperative to understand each point on the curve. Knowing where individuals and teams are in this process allows the management to adapt change strategies accordingly. The stages are detailed below.emotional-response-vs-time-chart

  • Shock: During this stage, individuals and teams are taken aback by the announcement. Individuals and teams will express surprise and wonder what the impetus for this change is. Shock is a discomforting stage for individuals and teams and they will be trying to prove their worth.
  • Denial: In professions rife with change, this stage is much more pronounced. Denial is when individuals and teams look for reasons why the change will not happen. For larger organizations, the entrenched nature of operating procedures usually serves as the disconfirming evidence.
  • Anger: As employees move through the process, anger is a distinct possibility. Individuals and teams are frustrated because they feel as if they are not being set up to succeed. The frustration becomes an impediment to productivity.
  • Bargaining: This stage is when individuals and teams avoid the change, delay it or attempt to sell an easier and less uncomfortable alternative. Because this is a time when team members are attempting to stave off change, productivity rates continue to descend.
  • Depression: Workplace nihilism takes root during this point. Individuals and team members often question their existential purpose and become less motivated. This dour nature impedes productivity as engagement and enthusiasm are at a low point.
  • Acceptance: At this point, the change is integrated. The people within a company accept there is a new way of doing things and appreciate the importance of learning new methods and procedures.

Understanding the Kubler-Ross Change Curve and the psychology of change management allows change leaders to implement change in ways facilitating ease of transition. Understanding the different parts of the change curve, along with the behaviors exhibited by individuals and teams, keeps organizations from remaining in periods of decreased productivity for an extended period.

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As illustrated, there is a loss of productivity during change; thus, managing each stage is critical. A key component to managing each stage is communication and expectations management.


Right arrowPreparation for change is imperative.

And when employees experience greater preparation, the productivity downturn period is decreased. The Kubler-Ross model assumes there is a resistance to change and that this resistance is largely responsible for the downturn in productivity

Whether there is active resistance or insecurity due to a lack of preparedness, there is often a correlating ineffectiveness of the management team’s strategy implementing this change. Management of change is an effective way to mitigate productivity downturns.

Change is implemented because the strategies are deemed to be a greater return on investment. However, productivity downturns decrease returns, and in workplaces where change is ineffectively managed, rampant absenteeism combined with poor productivity can create revenue losses.

Right arrowUsing effective change management (the second column on the graph above) creates quicker change recovery times and establishes a higher performance base. This makes sense because all changes are ostensibly designed to make businesses run at greater efficiency. This isn’t just hearsay, but is backed by science: Organizational scientist and researcher, Stephen Leybourne showed in his research (2003) that assisting employees through change can lead to less productivity downtime.

Often, the reason for these downturns is viewing people as responsible for their own emotional state. Coping with change is a major element of personal change management. Employees left to their own devices cope at different rates, thus affecting business productivity.

These employees experience feelings of loss and disillusionment. Those feelings replace ambition, engagement and fruitful intent. Effective change management programs create systems allowing individuals and teams to be active in the change implementation. The key to managing change is understanding how people as individuals cope with change and then in a coordinated fashion, helping them through it.

A key element in making the change take root with positive connotations is framing change positively.

Right arrowResistance doesn’t always look like outright defiance. It’s therefore important to listen for the “unsaid”. That is to look out for resistance behaviors that are subtle and passive in nature.

Many times, employees will sound on board with change, but their actions will reflect a different mindset. Effective change management programs differentiate between individuals and teams struggling with change and those subtly defying change.

Kubler-Ross Change Curve: Management Applications

Kubler-Ross’s work placed a high degree of importance on communication. During Kubler-Ross’s time developing her paradigm for change, she found most patients were reassured by medical practitioners taking the time to communicate with them and create realistic expectations.

All change management approaches must include an emphasis on communication. These processes can be informal or regimented – the key is ensuring that the change management approach properly integrates with the project management plan.

Right arrowKubler-Ross Change Curve used to guide change in the IT industry

For IT consultant Angela Lewis, change management was primarily an IT consideration. Many IT professionals experience constant changes in procedure and structure. For Lewis, the solution was not the exact Kubler-Ross method for implementing and monitoring change management systems. But found the same benefits – namely, when expectations are communicated in a non-threatening, supportive way, individuals and team members are more engaged in the change process and participate less in unproductive or avoidant behaviors.

Right arrowChange management is not just for IT. It works for the medical care industry, too

Looking back at the initial profession where Kubler-Ross sought to create change – the medical field – it is easy to see how change management applications are effective. Take Dr. Robert Pickoff (2009) who analyzed the Kubler-Ross model regarding the adoption process of new safety measures in the healthcare industry.

Medical safety measures are constantly refined and staff members can easily become frustrated with the frequency and ongoing need to be extremely adaptive and resilient. Dr. Pickoff describes the different phases and how physicians react within each phase. What becomes obvious is how clearly change management applications make the burden of new procedures less onerous.

Pickoff is especially keen to note that when doctors see there is a clear positive impact on patient outcomes, they are more likely to adapt to the change with greater zeal. Medicine is not the only profession where empirical results move individuals and team members along the change curve. The reality is when people see the effectiveness of change, they are more likely to buy in.

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Kubler-Ross Change Curve into Action: Understanding How to Manage Behaviors

Each stage in the Kubler-Ross Change Curve has clear behaviors and feelings.

In real-world change management applications, it is important to identify these behaviors and feelings quickly. Doing so moves individuals and team members through the curve quicker, thus shortening periods where lower productivity could harm the company’s bottom line.


Shock: Employees are feeling surprised and unsure about their future

  • Acknowledge and restate what employees are feeling, empathize with their pain
  • Reinforce beloved policies and procedures remaining to give other changes credibility
  • Respect how things were done; statements deriding past methods can undercut the change process and its intended effectiveness

Denial: Employees do not believe the policy will be implemented; communication is at extreme importance

  • Clearly explain the goal of the change; polite but firm communication is important, no matter how much team members disagree or show resistance
  • Keep context honest; do not provide every detail, only the important components
  • Be judicious about information dissemination; make sure information is applicable for a job so as not to overload employees
  • Appeal to logic; show why the change is being made, how it positively affects the company and why the old method was harming the company

Anger: Employees openly resist and do so vigorously

  • Paraphrase what employees are saying; this helps defuse anger and shows you are listening and conscientious of their concerns
  • Build intra-office connections; anger is often the result of feeling vulnerable so ensure a relationship-building environment
  • Build two-way communication channels to alleviate feelings of not being understood and heard

Bargaining: Avoidance of change procedures; passive resistance

  • Ask questions about how employees envision the best next steps for their success
  • Assist individuals and team members from being passive resistance to being active assistance
  • Explain how team members can get to the outcome they are looking for by immediately adopting the change. Provide assistance options and support strategy
  • Provide specific objective and actionable goals for employees to work hard towards

Depression: Unfocused feelings where people feel unresolved despair

  • Clarify issues so employees do not feel as if they are in the dark and their opinion doesn’t matter
  • Make heroes of the early adopters; this provides incentives for employees to emulate the actions of these change leaders
  • Use visible symbols showcasing the benefits of the change so employees are inclined to move forward

Acceptance: Employees are embracing new ideas and procedures

  • Recognize the effort of employees who embrace the change and adapt it into their functions; these folks are taking a massive risk by jumping aboard and integrating the change, therefore they need to have proper recognition for taking the risk
  • Consider providing public recognition for employees who have eagerly embraced the change process
  • Implement change rapidly and successfully on the first try; this gives the change greater credibility
  • Build systems reinforcing the change and provide quick positive feedback to those navigating the change process
  • Use feedback and monitoring systems to ensure change is being adopted

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Kubler-Ross Change Curve in Practice

Right arrow Amazon takes over wholefoods: a case study

The change curve makes theoretical sense, yet there is plenty of practical evidence supporting the efficacy of change management applications. Take, for example, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. Amazon, the online retail giant, who purchased a local-born and all-natural grocer with a decidedly non-corporate ethos.

Of course, any industry is majorly disrupted when Amazon widens its footprint, and it was no different in grocery retail. Competing with Amazon is no small feat and businesses must adopt new strategies.

Whole Foods team members – from management to the store staff – were required to adopt Amazon’s business practices, although the company wanted to stay true to its culture. At an industry view, retailers had to ask themselves about the status of traditional brick-and-mortar grocery retail and deal with the necessary adoption of online grocery order and delivery.

Right arrowClear communication at 3M

Large companies such as 3M are not immune to the effects of change. 3M’s Nordic Region sales team needed to adopt new strategies to stay successful in the chemicals market. Some functions were streamlined, staff members were laid off and remaining staff members were required to take on more responsibility and adopt new tactics.

3M’s Nordic leadership implemented change strategies that were clearly defined and effectively communicated to the sales staff. Thus, leaders reported that staff felt empowered and readily adopted the new changes. 3M’s implementation of the new model leads to greater productivity as employees, thanks to the clarity of communication.

Right arrow

Change curve used to implement Electronic Medical Records project 

A major recent change in medicine lies in electronic medical records (EMR). Many practitioners have been resistant to this change, especially in larger hospitals as the movement to EMR can change their entire daily work structures and routines. However, Shoolin of Advocate Health Care, reported that the successful implementation of EMRs was rooted in the same elements as previously stated – communication and clarity. Doctors were especially motivated to adapt when support and encouragement were provided from leadership and change advocates.

Right arrow

A process approach to change in academia

Academia is another area that can be highly bureaucratic and resistant to change. The process of accreditation for colleges can be arduous and extremely stressful. Rivas and Jones (2014) found that success in the accreditation process was the fundamental result of clear communication at the beginning stages and throughout the change process. The lulls in productivity consumed appreciably less time due to proper communication. This contributed to the success of the process – especially considering Kubler-Ross’s model was used at the start of the change management process.

Criticisms of the Kubler-Ross Change Curve

The chief criticism of the Kubler-Ross model is the assumption of resistance, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not all situations will involve hostility towards change.

Critics also argue that the model is too generalized and that the reactions to change are highly individualistic and do little to inform the design of the change.

Furthermore, the path is not linear. Indeed, Kubler-Ross herself said she skipped the first four stages. Ultimately, the way change works is in proportion to the idea of loss. If a loss is significant enough, change can be onerous; in other times, it can be welcomed.

Right arrowThe Kubler-Ross Change Curve is a powerful tool because it invites and facilitates discussion of the emotional consequences of organizational change.

It is a helpful way to understand the effects of change upon an organization. While there are some problems with the universality of the tool and how it scales to organizations as a whole, there are clear advantages.

First among those advantages is the acknowledgement of emotional reactions to change even if they are not openly expressed. This makes the emotional response easier to address and help change leaders and managers prepare for resistance to change and subsequent drops in productivity.

Effective management of change can lessen the duration of lower productivity periods. The increase in efficiency at the end of the change process needs less time to catch up.

No change model will perfectly fit a given situation. But the Kubler-Ross change model is an excellent starting point, or even an excellent mid-course assessment tool if you’re experiencing resistance and significant drops in productivity in your change initiative.

When proposing a change, understanding how Kubler-Ross’s Change Curve works for companies in developing protocol ensuring smooth transitions.

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