6 Common Sense Stages of Corporate Grief

Here it comes.

Business transformation.


Someone is about to, or has already “moved your cheese.” You’re wondering not only whether you can locate your cheese (otherwise known as your comfort zone), but if you even feel like looking for it. You find yourself with a new manager or a new assignment, only slightly interested in the work ahead of you. You’re missing what was, and leery about what will be.

This has either happened or will happen to most of us over the course of our professional lives. Change is inevitable. Some are energized by the challenge; others feel paralyzed by it. There’s not necessarily an “acceptable” reaction, but there areproductive and counter-productive responses. Similar to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, there are steps toward power in the midst of change, not only for a company whose intent is to be strengthened by it, but also for you, who can not only “manage” it…but also use it to your advantage.

Here we go…

1. Dread. You know change is coming, but you don’t know what it looks like or how it will affect you personally. You’re not even sure when it will happen, but you’re holding your breath, wondering if this will be the week you discover that life as you know it will never be the same.

What to do? Stop worrying. What you imagine is often worse than the truth, and worrying is an energy suck. You need to conserve your energy for the work ahead when the future does become clearer, which will be when it will be — no sooner, no later. Reminds me of a comedian who once said his girlfriend would ask him, “where are you going to be?” His response: “I’m gonna be where I’m at.” Same. The change is going to come when it comes, and no amount of worrying will make a difference.

2. Shock. These days, when change comes, it doesn’t come gently. From a business perspective, it can’t. The marketplace changes aren’t gentle. The dramatic increase in consumer expectations isn’t gentle. The rise in the cost of doing business isn’t gentle. And while we know this in theory, drastic change still shakes us to our very core, even when we aren’t directly affected. Because now we know we’re not untouchable. And that’s scary.

What to do? Give yourself permission to feel all the feels. It’s normal to be sad. Mad. Frustrated. Unsure. Human beings long for security. When that security is threatened, we come undone a bit. If you need to take a day or two to get your mind right, do that. If you need to talk it out with a close friend or colleague, do that. Don’t shove it down or deny it, because if you do, it will come back at a later time, when others have moved on. (Then you’ll be the bitter, crazy one, and I don’t want that for you.)

3. Paralysis. What now? Everything has shifted, and you’re insecure about your place in it all. You may have a new role, new responsibilities, or the same role with a new strategy against which to apply your expertise. Leadership doesn’t seem especially patient, because there’s a lot of work to do and no one has time to waste. But you are like a newborn baby in a grown-up land — everything appears just slightly out of reach. So you sit. And stare. And try to collect the nerve to take those first steps in a direction you’re not completely sure is the right one.

What to do? This is a good time to get to know yourself better than anyone else knows you. What are your beliefs and values? What is your purpose? How are you differently gifted to contribute? Figure out what sets you apart – what unique value you have to offer, and how you want to offer it. Creating a vision for your future is the best way to let go of the past. It’s much easier to “start” doing something new, than to just “stop” doing something old. (What do they say? The best way to get over an old lover is to get a new one? Bad analogy maybe, but you get my point.)

4. Reconciliation. You’re starting to realize this “new thing” is now the thing, period (They weren’t kidding!), and you’d better figure it out. I recently shared with a roomful of leaders that while industry experts often write about companies and transformation, there is no company transformation without employee transformation. Your “company” doesn’t think. Create. Solve. Inspire. Overcome. The people who comprise it do these things. You are the people!

What to do? Get in the game, or don’t. Some are surprised when I pose leaving an organization as one of their reconciliation alternatives. If after the very normal phases of dread, shock, and paralysis, you can’t commit to “the thing,” you should go to a place where you can. There’s a great big world out there, and while you may not have taken much time to notice, there’s opportunity in it. It’s better to quit and leave than quit and stay. Your company can’t afford for you to take up space in a perpetual state of unbelief. And what’s more, you can’t afford it. It eats away at your spirit.

5. Engagement. You have come to accept this simple truth: if you don’t drive this doggone bus, it’s gonna sit in the parking lot. And rest assured, there is no “us” and “them” in the midst of transformation. You can’t wait for someone else to hop in the driver’s seat. There’s a collective “we” – and that collective must work together to accelerate change. To shift paradigms, ask new questions, face new challenges. They have to trust each other. Be flexible. Innovative. Inclusive. They have to try. Hard. And they have to care. A lot.

What to do? Try hard and care a lot, of course. Support each other. Challenge assumptions. Tell the truth. Ask for what you need, and keep seeking unexpected solutions. Don’t say, “We can’t.” Instead, say, “What would have to be true to make it happen?” This question shifts you into problem-solving mode, which is exactly where you need to be.

6. Confidence. Your resolve to get off the sidelines and into the game starts to pay off. You’re feeling more hopeful and powerful, because YOU did it. Yes, YOU! With your courage and talent and commitment. You’re a winner. But of course, you always were. You just had to figure it out for yourself. And now you’ve learned a truly valuable lesson: this is a process. So next time a big wave of change comes, not only will you survive it, you’ll thrive in it. And you’ll help others do the same.

What to do? Capture this moment in writing so you can refer back to it. You will feel uncertain again someday. You’ll feel dread, or shock, or paralysis, and you’ll need to remember that you conquered it once, and can conquer it again. We are a resilient bunch, and each of us has creative power. You owe it to yourself to use it wisely.

This change thing is here to stay. The more muscle we build for leading through it, the more valuable we’ll be to our organizations and the consumers we serve. Good luck, Godspeed, and remember…you are the people!

Tara Jaye Frank
About the author: 

Based in Dallas, TX, Tara Jaye Frank is the President at TJF Career Modeling., and was previously the Vice President of Multicultural Strategy for Hallmark Cards, Inc, where she held a series of Director and Vice President positions in Creative Writing, Consumer Platforms and Editorial. She is the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, published by Gold House Press earlier this year. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.