It came as a bit of a shock.

I was part of a team working on a new packaging concept called ‘minimal bottle’. The idea was to develop a solution that would reduce packaging across a range of laundry and cleaning products to be more environmentally friendly, and reduce costs. As a financial analyst on the project, my role was to help determine the financial impact of the transition out of old packaging and into minimal bottles.

One afternoon, we got called into a meeting to learn the minimal bottle project was being put on hold. There were other priorities that management wanted to pursue instead, which pushed minimal bottle onto the ‘unresourced projects’ list.

It was a sad moment: we had all put time and effort into this idea and we had it as a key deliverable on our evaluation work plans. I had become emotionally invested in the idea.

I think I speak on behalf of everyone in the room that day when I say that it was depressing news to learn. I certainly felt that way based on the personal effort and passion that I had put into the project – and I was the summer intern.

 

People’s Personal Identities are Connected to Their Work, and to the Belief System that Proves Their Work is Meaningful. 

In our fast-moving economy, changes in strategies, priorities, and occasionally the philosophical beliefs of organizations, happen all the time.

As someone who had only been on the minimal bottle project for about six weeks, I got a taste of what it is like to be emotionally invested in something that was no longer considered important.

When people go to work each day – regardless of what they do – they want to believe it is valuable and important.

So if one day they come in, and are told a project they are working on is no longer a priority – or worse, that the values and beliefs upon which they base their work are no longer consistent with organizational strategy – it is understandable they might want to push back. Or at the very least, not immediately embrace the new philosophy or direction with enthusiastic vigour.

That’s because they feel under attack. And when that happens, their instincts are fight or flight. Defend or leave.

Because emotionally, the change doesn’t feel like it’s just about the project. It feels like a negative assessment on them as human beings.

 

There is a lot of great change management theory out there. But I’ve never heard this idea before: people need time for mourning.

For organizations going through change, the focus and emphasis is on future state. Getting past the mess as quickly and efficiently as possible to a new and better tomorrow. But thoughtful leaders understand that the shortest distance between Point A and Point B isn’t always a straight line. And that is a fundamental difference between establishing a sense of urgency, and rushing.

Jean Desgagné is President of Global Enterprise Solutions, which is part of the TMX Group that runs the Toronto Stock Exchange. His company is going through important and significant changes: not only in what they do and how they do it, but also in what’s valued. Making sure the Exchange is up and operating without fail is still really important, but it isn’t good enough any more. It isn’t the paramount “purpose” of the firm any more. They are increasingly showing their customers – the companies and other organizations that work with the TMX Group to get financing – that they are valued technology-driven partners who deliver solutions to client problems.

Jean Desgagné argues that when organizations go through change – especially when there is a shift in the philosophy of what is prioritized or when the “purpose” of the firm changes – people need time for mourning. Because all of a sudden, the principles people once believed to be foundational, are not as foundational any more. And when people’s world views are challenged or changed, when the purpose they had signed up to changes, they need time to grieve and mourn.

Successful leaders create environments where people going through change can grieve the loss of what they held dear, or believed to be paramount.

In these cases of major shifts in philosophy, staff members have emotional reactions to the loss of something that was important to them: part of their personal identity. And as human beings, we are hard-wired to grieve. It can take time for people to work through the emotions related to what is, for them, interpreted as a personal loss. Despite what we might want or like, that process can be slow.

Across cultures and creeds, the importance of grief and mourning are well understood, honoured, and respected. Culturally and anthropologically, the respect that exists for a time of mourning is universal, and the source of very powerful rituals, mores, and traditions.

If you are an organizational leader helping a group through change, create space and time for mourning and grief. Move ahead, don’t hesitate, do all those things that John Kotter tells us in his eight-step process for leading change. But remember this 9th step: provide space for appropriate mourning and grief.

And for all of us (because leaders are often subject to the winds of change as well…) acknowledge when we are grieving a loss in our professional lives. Identify that grief for what it is, and don’t ignore it. It’s not weak to be sad at a funeral, nor should it be considered a deficit of leadership when you process professional grief appropriately.

This concept of mourning is an important phase of change management that no one told us about. And the reason it is so important, is because you ignore it at your peril. Just as avoiding an appropriate phase of mourning after a death only prolongs the pain, a lack of space for professional grief during times of change, simply delays or inhibits the achievement of the new vision.

By: Hugh MacPhie