By John Richardson
I HAVE long admired the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who studied how people adjust to death and set out her analysis in the ground-breaking book, On Death and Dying. In this, she identified how people usually go through five different stages of response to death – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance.
Her studies also provide wider insight into how we react to life-changing events. She believed that people move through similar stages in response to major personal loss, such as the need for the acceptance of change in today’s economic environment:
- First is Denial. An example of this occurred from early 2014 until the second half of 2015. Chemicals and other companies kept overlooking all the evidence pointing towards Beijing’s firm, determined commitment to economic reforms and what this meant for the global economy. This type of Denial is almost entirely behind us. But new forms of Denial keep cropping up. For example, there are the theories that China’s move towards a more consumer-led economy can somehow be completed overnight; or that the decline in oil prices will somehow help to solve all the world’s current problems.
- Next comes the Anger stage. People are today getting angry as they begin to recognise that major problems are emerging in the global economy. They are also looking for scapegoats to blame, such as immigrants or refugees. This is understandable, as everyone wants to protect their livelihoods and so the economic security of their families.
- This is followed by Bargaining, where people try to achieve a compromise with the new reality. The problem is that they are still finding it hard to accept the full gravity of the situation, and so are hoping against hope that some relative small changes might be enough to get things back to where they were.
- Next comes Depression, which is the opposite to Bargaining. People become overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation. In the business context, this can often mean that they start going round and round in circles, and are unable to think clearly about what needs to be done. Chemicals companies trapped in this “analysis paralysis” will risk going bankrupt.
- And finally, there is Acceptance. People finally recognise that things are what they are, and that they need to do something about this. Suddenly, they are able to decide what needs to be done, and the way ahead becomes clear.
What complicates these five stages is that people do not generally move in a straight line between them. They often get “blocked” at a certain point, and flip back to an earlier stage. This is part of the reason why people can spend a lot of time going round and round in circles in the Depression stage.
One way of moving through this process is to tackle it with your colleagues, in internal company workshops. It will take time to understand why things have once again gone so badly wrong with the economy, and so soon after the 2008 collapse. But working together, you will be able to support each other and learn from your colleagues.
Rushing into action too soon, without doing the essential diagnosis of the problems, can potentially be as harmful as doing nothing and being “caught in the headlights”. This is where we can help.