Debunking a Popular Myth: the Kubler-Ross Model of Change

By |2019-11-14T07:32:55+11:00November 13th, 2019|Categories: Change Fitness|

The Kubler-Ross Model (of Change)

Many people are familiar with the Kubler-Ross model. This model is often cited as a description of how change works – a model of change, if you will. It is commonly used in business circles to show how people in organisations react to change. However, before we embrace the model, we should understand where it came from. It came from the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She was a medical doctor who helped people who were dying.

What is a Model?

We should be clear about what a model is. It is a way of representing some reality, often an abstract reality. It represents patterns in the world. Kubler-Ross’ model represents patterns in how people react to mortality, or loss.

A change model would need to represent patterns in how people engage with change. It would seek to answer questions like: how do humans typically respond to and engage with change?

It is sometimes claimed that humans are hard-wired to resist change. The idea is that change involves risk, and humans are hard-wired to avoid risk and seek safety. I think there is truth in this claim, but, it doesn’t capture the full picture.

How successful a species is depends on how you measure success. But you could argue that humans are one of the most successful species on the planet. We have not only adapted to virtually every ecological niche on land, but we have also made the ecology adapt to us. We have even found ways to adapt to the most inhospitable of environments – space.

So, the way humans engage with change cannot be reduced to the simple claim that we are hard-wired to resist change. We also appear to be hard-wired to embrace change – changing ourselves and changing the world in which we live. Think of how much enthusiasm surrounds the idea of a mission to Mars or the concept of terraforming the red planet.

When we search for a model of change, we are seeking a way to represent the patterns in our brain structures and the typical human behaviours those structures produce. We are not really looking to model an abstract concept called ‘change’ – what we want is a model of how humans, at our best, engage with the process of change.

Back to Kubler-Ross

The Kubler-Ross model pre-supposes change is perceived as negative and threatening. This threat could come in the form of some unexpected and unwelcome news of a medical condition, the loss of a job or a significant other, negative financial news, or any other announcement that has significant implications for how you will move forward in life.

In other words, the model doesn’t really describe change: it describes a person’s emotional response to an unwanted and apparently negative change that has arisen on their horizon, and the process by which they come to terms with this new reality.

The wavy line on the graph represents a person’s emotional and cognitive response to news of a change they don’t want. Their initial state of relative well-being takes an immediate fall as they first hear the news, but soon rises as the person denies the reality or truth of the news. Surely this can’t be true? There must be a mistake here!

Once it become apparent that no mistake has been made, emotional well-being falls as shock and perhaps anger overwhelm the person. This may be followed by attempts at bargaining (with God? The universe?) as the person sinks deeper into depression.

Hopefully, with time, the person comes to terms with the new reality and begins to accept it. As emotional and cognitive well-being improves, and they make commitments about how they will proceed with life. Unfortunately, some people never accept the new reality and remain trapped in a state of depression.

This is a useful model that describes aspects of a common human experience – how we handle our fragility and mortality and the fact that bad things sometimes happen to good people. But there are several reasons why this model is not a good model of change.

First, change is not always negative. People win the lottery. They discover treasure. They meet someone and fall in love. They receive accolades and awards. There are many changes, expected or unexpected, that would not follow the pattern of the Kubler-Ross model. So, it cannot be a model we apply to all situations alike.

Second, not all change is unintended or unexpected. There are changes that just happen and there are changes we make happen. Intended changes usually don’t have the denial or shock elements that may be found in unintentional change.

Third, and most importantly, the Kubler-Ross model leaves too much out. It doesn’t provide a clear enough or detailed enough representation of how people typically respond to or engage with change. But what it does do well is it represents how people typically respond emotionally and behaviourally to a change they don’t want. That’s fine, but it’s only one part of a much bigger picture.

So, if a bigger picture is needed to describe typical human behaviour around change, where can we find such a model?

The Transtheoretical Model of Change

Change has always been part of human life so it may seem odd that it would be difficult to describe how that process happens. But it was difficult to describe. By the 1970’s there were over 250 different models of change in the academic literature. These models demonstrated a sense of confusion about the nature of the change process. This confusion led two American researchers, Prochaska and DiClemente, to put all existing models on the table and look for patterns. After years of work they produced a model that incorporates the best of existing models and most closely reflects the typical patterns in how humans engage with change.

They discovered 5 distinct phases, stages, or steps people engage in, and each step has its own purpose and its own set of behaviours. They also found that it’s normal for people to move forwards and backwards through these steps. Let’s look at these steps.

Step 1 – Not Even Thinking About Change

It may sound strange that the first step should be where people aren’t even thinking about change. But just because people aren’t consciously thinking about change doesn’t mean nothing’s happening. The person may have a vague feeling that something’s wrong.  The sub-conscious may be working and this might eventually emerge as a conscious need for change.

Furthermore, Step 1 doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t conscious of the need for change. They might be very aware of the need but may not think change is possible, or they might have tried to change before and failed.

And it is also very possible that people are in Step 1 because they hope things don’t change. We are all in Step 1 with things in our lives. We might love our home, love our jobs, love our car, or whatever. Sure, there may come a time when we think about moving, getting a new job, or replacing our car; but for now, we’re happy.

Step 2 – Thinking About Change

At some point we start thinking about changing things in our lives. We get tired or bored with how things are, and we want to change them. Or we become aware of things we want and good opportunities, and we start thinking about them. So, we make some investigations, talk to some people, perform a cost/benefit analysis. We think about how we feel about the change, whether it could work for us, and whether it’s worth the effort.

I think that Step 2 is where the Kubler-Ross model fits in. Sometimes we are thrust directly into Step 2. If we are thrust into a change that is perceived as threatening, the fight or flight mechanism will be activated. We may very well go into denial, become shocked or angry, and get depressed. We have a lot of processing to do. Sometimes, people get stuck in Step 2 and can’t find a way out.

But the way out of Step 2 is with a decision. It may be a commitment to do all we can to make change happen, or it may be a decision to go back to Step 1. If we decide to go ahead with change, we move into Step 3.

Step 3 – Deciding and Preparing

A firm decision for change marks the beginning of Step 3.

What do people do when they are in Step 3? They engage in preparation for change. There are many things to do and we need to work out how to approach them.

In every step of the change process there are risks and ways of getting stuck. One of the risks in Step 3 is that people get impatient. They skimp on preparation and want to get into the “real” change. But that behaviour only helps people fail.

A way of getting stuck in Step 3 is being a perfectionist. We do need to prepare thoroughly, but we don’t have to do it perfectly. We need to move on.

Step 4 – Making it Happen

This step is where we begin doing new things or doing old things in new ways. This is where we try things out, where we make mistakes, and where we learn the most. This is exciting, but there are many risks here. The chance of making mistakes is high, and we must deal with that. We may become frustrated, fearful, disappointed, or overjoyed. We may be tempted to give up if it gets hard, but if we continue and if we learn we eventually enter Step 5 of the process.

Step 5 – Keeping it Going

This is the final step of the change process. What are we doing here? We are persisting with change. The steep learning curve has flattened out and we are working towards the end, where we are used to the new behaviours. But there are still risks involved – getting sick of the struggle, memories of ‘the good old times’, and such like.

As mentioned earlier, it is normal to move forwards and backwards through this process. We make some progress, and then we regress. But, if we keep at it, eventually we win.

That’s what the Transtheoretical Model of Change describes – the pattern of how humans approach change. Or I should say; how they approach change when they do it right. So, what does it take to do it right?

Change Fitness

This process of change described by the Transtheoretical Model of Change may be typical of people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are many challenges and many risks, and it’s not easy.

To be good at this process we need a special kind of fitness – change fitness. Change fitness is a psychological fitness for the change process and it’s in our minds. People who have lots of change fitness find the change process easier to handle than people who don’t have much fitness. That means change-fit people are more likely to succeed at change. They are more likely to be successful people because you can’t grow if you can’t change.

Conclusion

The Kubler-Ross model is a good model, but it is not a good change model. The Transtheoretical Model of Change is a much better description of what people do when they engage in change. To be good at the change process you need to understand how it works and you need change fitness.

If you would like to have more change fitness, or would like your leaders and employees to have more change fitness, we can offer you change fitness coaching. If you would like to become a change fitness coach, please reach out to me and express your interest.

Dr Steve Barlow