Prospering from organisational grief

Whilst its cause isn't, grieving is good. It is our natural response to the severe shock of loss. In my view grief applies equally to organisations going through loss and challenging times


Organisational grief is the process an organisation experiences during such times. Like personal grief it is caused by external factors such as recession, job losses, acquisitions and globalisation, creating behavioural trends that can end an organisation’s life and also trigger improvement.

Viewing your organisation as a living organism that comprises different elements needing to function harmoniously, allows better understanding of the ‘operational emotions’ it is dealing with during times of change. For example, using and adapting the highly regarded personal ‘Grief Curve’ established by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss physician and researcher forty years ago, gives us useful insights into what is making our organisations tick today.
Positioning organisations on a ‘Grief Curve’ and developing strategies to deal with that position helps us in ‘riding the wave’ in the most effective way, ironing out the rollercoaster effect and reaching a stage of learning and action more swiftly. The grieving experience of recession-weary organisations actually has the power to make them stronger in the future.

In 1969, in her book “On Death and Dying”, Kubler-Ross introduced five stages of personal emotional and psychological responses in the grief process or when undergoing significant personal life change. The Kubler-Ross Curve became well established and highly regarded. During my personal experiences of coaching senior executives, leadership teams and supporting entire organisational systems, Kubler-Ross’ thinking has helped many leaders understand organisational systems and their position within them.

Organisational coaching often just focuses on individuals, teams or elements within the organisation but this does not tell the whole story. A systems-based approach, with primary focus on the organisation as a whole, helps management to understand the interdependence of its parts. We adapted the ‘Grief Curve’ into seven stages of organisational grief. These are shock, denial, frustration, depression, experimentation, decisions and integration.

Organisational shock (1)
At the shock stage an individual will feel numb and emotionless with the news of a personal loss. It can manifest in extreme and irrational behaviour. Organisationally this is when change is announced and employees “can’t quite believe it”. People go home early, suffer emotional outbursts and take more days off sick. Some do carry on with the status quo, however confusion reigns for the organisational system. Although a major revolution is unlikely yet, reduced productivity is highly likely.

Organisational denial (2)
Denial is an unwillingness to accept the truth. You have never felt better, how can you be ill? In an organisation, productivity now goes up, people work longer hours, increase sales and try to prove that everything’s fine. Whole organisations can believe that “we’ve always done it this way and we can ride this storm” rather than accepting the situation and changing. Hopes are often pinned on short term tactical developments but the reality is that these mini-milestones won’t change anything.

Organisational frustration (3)
In grief, anger is often projected at the deceased. The person left behind typically feels powerless and starts to lay blame on ‘higher forces’. Inability to change the situation causes intense frustration. In organisations this can be a tendency to blame everyone else – the government, senior management, fellow employees, or an aggressive acquirer. Subversive behaviour is common, even to the extent of leaking confidential information or selling the contact database. Staff will be de-motivated and not interested in working hard. Key post holders and others may ‘jump ship’ through lost loyalty. Coffee machine, water cooler and smokers’ huddles become more common.

Organisational depression (4)
Hitting rock bottom hurts. Surrounded by futility you give up and fully accept what’s coming. This is the emotional low point and a critical stage when decisions must be taken in order to secure a better outcome. A real sense that the organisation’s whole identity has been changed by uncontrollable forces prevails. This is a crucial point in the cycle as the successful transition will determine whether it continues to exist and move forward or ceases to exist and dies.

Organisational experimentation (5)
The depression stage is so unpleasant that most organisations and individuals will start to pull themselves out of it sooner or later, looking at innovative new ways of operating or new business models. This is triggered by a general feeling of “I can’t stay this way any longer.” The mood will be retrospective and self-analytical looking in the company history to determine what risks could have been taken but weren’t and how they can become more intuitive or courageous to improve decision making.

Organisational decisions (6)
Experimentation creates proof which leads to bolder decisions. They are not yet accepting a future that can be as good as, if not better, than the past, but they have realised that there are plenty of reasons to carry on and have started rebuilding. For organisations this is the decision making process of what works and what doesn’t. Accepting changes within the organisation allows it to move forward and begin to feel more optimistic and enthusiastic about the future. Sound business plans are developed and a new vision is established and communicated.

Organisational integration (7)
Not only are you now living again but you are able to look back at your previous life with a sense of fondness and respect. Individuals will now achieve things they would never have thought possible in their previous life, because the process of grieving and acceptance of change has led them to step set new boundaries. An organisation will now integrate change into its everyday practices and it will become the norm. The future and indeed the present no longer need to be feared as the knowledge gleaned from the experience of the past can be used to deal with other organisational, market or economy driven change in the future.

Grief is itself a transition process – from a ‘before’ to the ‘after’. As with most changes, transition takes time. How much time is dependent upon the individual, the organisation and its leadership.