Guiding employees through the four stages of change

Apr 02, 2020

How can we lead people through these uncertain times? Wendy McCulla explores how managers can use the four stages of change to better understand and support their teams.

COVID-19 is having a profound impact on the way we live, work and interact. The situation is extremely complex and continually evolving. No one can predict what will happen, so how can we support our employees through these uncertain times?

Managing the process of any change is relatively straight-forward. Leading people (and their emotions) through that change is what makes the difference between success and failure. Most people do not like uncertainty. More so, a sense of loss of control. Employees may be feeling worried about their current and future job security, and even angry at decisions that management are being forced to make.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve (Denial, Anger, Exploring, Acceptance) is helpful to better understand employees’ reactions and identify how managers can best support them at each stage of the cycle. At the end of each stage, I’ve suggested some questions to think about.

Stage 1: Denial

When news of COVID-19 started to make the news, it seemed like something that was happening ‘over there’ and would not affect us. However, the situation has rapidly evolved and is now impacting on every aspect of our lives. 

Any changes that are being implemented in the workplace need to be clearly communicated to employees. This can be difficult given the speed at which decisions are being made. Use all available channels of communication (team briefings, one-to-ones, emails, intranet) to ensure the facts are being shared. A lack of information causes fear and the grapevine will fill the void with its own versions of ‘the truth’! Ensuring that employee health and well-being are a priority in any decisions being made will help build trust with the team. 

Ask yourself:

  • How can I best communicate with my team, so they have the information they need to feel safe?
  • What information do they need to explain any changes in direction?

Stage 2: Anger

As the reality of the changes in working conditions, workflow and job security becomes clear, employees may express anger. This is a natural reaction to the sense of unfairness of the situation and the feeling of lost control. Talk to your employees and, just as importantly, listen to their concerns and suggestions. Amid all the uncertainty, it is vital to make yourself available to support them. Enable employees to feel heard and valued.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I listening to my employees as well as giving them information?
  • How can I role model the behaviours for constructive dialogue with my team?

Stage 3: Exploring 


As we settle into this new reality, talk to your team to identify how you can improve ways of working and servicing clients/customers. Perhaps employees can be trained in other skills or tasks to help them expand their knowledge and experience during the crisis. If work is slower, perhaps they could be encouraged to watch webinars or listen to podcasts related to their work to spark ideas for improvements. Many companies are now using technology to enable remote working and virtual meetings.  This will have an impact on how we work after the crisis ends.

Ask yourself:

  • How can we adapt the way we work?
  • How can we keep employees connected (mentally and emotionally) over the coming weeks and months if many are working from home?
  • What might we be assuming that is limiting our potential?
  • How can we improve how we deliver for our clients/customers?What do they need from us right now?
  • What can we learn from other organisations and industries that will help us evolve and survive?

Stage 4: Acceptance 

Offer plenty of encouragement to the team and publicly recognise creativity and collaboration (or any of the other positive behaviours you want to encourage). Share ideas for improvement and generate a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. This is also a great opportunity to review your business strategy with the team and identify possible changes in direction based on what you have learned. 

Ask yourself:

  • What can we learn from this experience?
  • Knowing what we do from this experience, what could we do differently to be better prepared for any future big changes?

While there is uncertainty in the current situation, it provides us with a great opportunity to pause and reflect on what ‘good’ might look like for the future. As Winston Churchill said, “It is not what happens that defines us, it is how we respond to what happens to us”.

Managers who stay connected with their team and work together through this crisis will be best placed to hit the ground running once we get through to the other side.

Wendy McCulla is a Leadership Coach at Aspire Learning & Development