EU question mark

The result of the recent Brexit referendum in the UK came as a complete shock for many people who had been expecting ‘Remain’ to win, which of course would have meant ‘No change’, carry on as before.

Unpicking and evaluating the longer term ramifications of the Brexit vote is a task so huge that even those politicians and civil servants tasked with delivering an orderly withdrawal from the EU seem to be at something of a loss as to what lies in store.

Several people who voted ‘Remain’ have expressed feelings of anger and despair. This triggers a reminder of the value of understanding the stages that people go through when coping with change in their lives. The one fact that can be stated with any degree of certainty is that, for the time being at the very least, there simply is no certainty.

The Kübler-Ross model was developed by Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who pioneered methods in the support and counselling associated with death and dying. The principles behind this model also apply to situations where people are coping with the trauma brought on by change in general, for example being made redundant, or change in the workplace, or maybe by a shock Brexit result.

You may find it helpful in work environments to use a slightly adapted model to include the following stages: shock, denial, awareness, acceptance, experimentation, search and integration. Following a process similar to the Kübler-Ross model will ensure change management that lasts, innovating company culture to accommodate and even welcome these changes in the long-run.

Right now in the UK, with the referendum only a few weeks ago, you can sense that many people are still in the shock or maybe the denial phases. People feel numbness and despair, they may be dazed and perplexed.

Different people will be at different stages and they will transition through the phases at different speeds. They may oscillate between phases too. It is helpful when supporting people through this kind of change to recognise the signs of each phase and adjust how you help and support people depending on their phase.

For example, when people are still in the ‘shock’ phase, they will certainly need empathy ‘I can see why you feel like that’ but they are unlikely to respond well to ‘logical’ argument about the ‘pros and cons’. They may want to vent their anger. Let them, and listen. Equally, when they are in the ‘denial’ phase, it’s best not to raise false hopes that it might not happen, but do confront the issue and get them talking.

There are other strategies that can be used as they move through the different phases, for example when they enter the ‘experimentation’ phase, support them and let them discover the ‘new world’ and start to think out of the box. Don’t knock down their ideas. The key strength of a successful change management programme is one that sets the project out in black and white, emphasising the advantages to be accrued by introducing change in a holistic manner, ensuring that all parts of an organisation have bought into that change, regarding it as an organic product of the environment rather than a management imposition.

There are many change management approaches beside the Kübler-Ross model and some have found these tools and techniques as important, if not more important than the traditional quality tools and techniques needed for effective business improvement. The shell-shocked reaction of so many people to the Brexit vote merely serves to underline the negative impact that change can have if people feel it is being imposed without their full involvement or understanding.

By Martin Brenig-Jones, managing director of Catalyst Consulting