Like many of my fellow OD practitioners, I have made good use of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work “On Death and Dying” in my practice. In particular, her work on transitions and taking this from the realm of death and dying and relating it to the stages people go through as they deal with organisational change and transformation. I have designed exercises and interventions to help people understand what stage in the change process they are at, how to move between stages and if they are stuck, how to unstick themselves and get back into ‘flow’. I am sure you all know her model and like me have worked to develop it and apply it in your practice.
Imagine my interest then when reading psychoanalysts Stephen Grosz book ‘The Examined Life” and his exploration of transitions, change and closure. It’s a beautifully written book, with each short chapter telling the story of a client Grosz has worked with over a number of years. To my mind he captures the essence of the analytic experience and portrays it with empathy and skill. It was his chapter “On Closure” that particularly caught my eye. In this account he writes about two clients; one a mother still grieving many years after her child’s untimely death and the other, a man who feels he has been stuck on anti depressants for ten years, as a result of his fathers suicide.
He describes how their suffering is increased because they believe that by now, years after the initial event, they should be done with grieving, have closure and have moved on. His believes that Kubler Ross’s work encourages us to think in this way. If we don’t get to closure then there is something wrong with us.
What he points out is that her work was initially focused on people who were terminally ill and would eventually die and the use of her 5-stage model to describe the experience of those left grieving is wrong. His belief is that the psychological experience of death and that of grief is completely different. For the person who dies there is an end, but not so for the person who grieves. “For the person whose goes on living and for as long as he or she lives, there is always the possibility of grief” He believes closure is a delusion and a that it’s “a false hope that we can deaden our living grief”.
I wonder if one of the reasons why changes and OD initiatives so often fail is because we practitioners are wedded to notions of moving through stages and have over applied Kubler Ross’s work to our own? In doing so do we fail to take account of the fact that the bright shiny new initiative we have been asked to work on does not reflect the fact that people are not over the last wave of organisational and or personal change? We never truly have a clean slate to work on. The organisational canvas is always muddied by past changes and experiences of OD and transformation. I wonder if we are too ready to assume that everyone has closure on previous changes? That they have managed either alone, or with help, to move through the change cycle and are ready for the next wave of change? If they are stuck, do we make the assumption that this is an expression of resistance, personal weakness or failing? In doing so are we unleashing what I am now thinking of as ‘the tyranny of transitions’ on them? Rather than accepting that like the grief associated with the death of a loved one the grief, sadness, fear and anxiety occasioned by organisational change is never truly closed but only subsumed. As we experience more and more organisational change an undercurrent of fear and anxiety builds and builds and impacts directly on out capacity to reach out to the new change with any true sense of optimism and engagement.
One of the first things I did in a recent change project and prior to any design work etc., was to conduct interviews and focus groups with about a 10th of the organisation (over 500 people) to understand:
• Their relationship to change
• Their experience of past changes; the good, the bad and the ugly
• Their understanding of the current case for change
• How they wanted and expected to be involved.
This data was invaluable in shaping the overall OD strategy for the project and designing interventions.
I wonder now if I should have spent even more time on this stage and surfaced more about people’s experience of past transitions and found a way of understanding if they were still working through a sense of loss and grief occasioned by the last change and somehow incorporated this understanding into the new change we were all working on. In doing so might I have avoided what I am now thinking of as “grief overload”?
I would be really interested to hear your views on the implications of this for the practice of OD? Are we tyrannising our clients and ourselves with transitions? What ideas do you have for helping people, who for are not yet ready to move on from a past change, yet alone ready for a new one? It will be great to hear your thoughts and ideas.