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Psychoanalytic Business Coaching

Change coaching: 5 Implications for handling grief during change processes

Due to rapid changes in the market, companies and their members are constantly being urged to adapt to new requirements. Although such changes are often unavoidable in order to secure the competitiveness of the company, they are often met with great resistance from employees. In an otherwise smooth operational process, change is usually perceived as a disruption, which magnitude often cannot entirely be explained rationally.

A concept that enables a deeper understanding and corresponding implications for dealing with resistance in the context of change processes is the concept of mourning. Freud already defined mourning as “the reaction to the loss of a loved one or the loss of an abstract concept that has taken its place, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal, etc.”. With regard to the organizational context, changes for employees mean, among other things, the loss of security, control, competence, status, responsibility, authority or even their job. In order to adapt to the new requirements, old identities and roles must be abandoned. This not only awakens fears but also memories of loss and separation that deeply affect everyone. The resulting grief is often accompanied by a depressed mood, a loss of interest in the outside world, and a rejection of any achievement that is not related to what has been lost. Even if replacement is already on the table, it is often difficult for the employees to withdraw their libido from the connection with the inner objects. According to Freud, this is due to the fact that although we have cognitively understood that what has been lost no longer exists, by turning away from reality and holding on to what has been lost, a “hallucinatory psychosis of desire”, initially occurs. In the process, the existence of the lost object is initially continued in an inner-psychic way, in which the memories and expectations of the libidinously occupied object are adjusted, overoccupied and the libido is resolved. Only as a result of a completed grieving process, in which the loss can be worked through, is the ego again free and uninhibited for the occupation of new objects. However, this requires a great investment of time and psychic energy.

In order to be able to master a change process without major difficulties, it is also necessary in companies to pay attention to mourning. However, we often do not know how to deal with grief, because of the displacement of grief from the collective into the private, as well as the lack of appropriate rituals, which could offer a framework for dealing with grief. Even in an organizational context, managers often reach their limits when it comes to dealing with grief reactions in the context of change processes. Mourning is not pathological, but a natural process, which is not only an expression of loss, but also an expression of how to cope with it. Some suggestions in dealing with grief reactions as a result of change processes, result from the task models of grief processes. In contrast to the phase models, which are dedicated to the process-like character of mourning, task models provide managers and their employees with an overview of what they will face until they have overcome the loss and point out corresponding possibilities for action. In doing so, they leave room for the individuality of grief and accordingly enable the design of individual coping styles and strategies.

Change Management in 5 steps

1. Learning to understand change and loss

First of all, it is important to name the change and the loss of the past. This helps to realize and accept the change and the associated losses as reality. At the same time, it signals to employees that change and the associated losses are inevitable and that they are prepared to talk about it. This lays the foundation for all subsequent steps to overcome losses.

2. Give room to mourning reactions

But even when change has been cognitively understood, there is often resistance that makes it difficult for employees to admit their feelings about the changes and the associated losses. It is therefore important to give employees space, time and opportunity for their feelings and reactions. However, it is important to encourage the mourning reactions, not to push or demand them.

3. Acknowledge the losses

In addition, it is important to produce a good report in which the employees get the feeling of being accepted with their fears and loss experiences. This requires sensitivity, empathy, appreciation and emotional warmth on the part of the manager. At the same time, it is important not to trivialize, euphemise or appease the reactions of employees and to formulate one’s own feelings from first-person perspective.

4. Support transitions

In order to adapt to new working conditions, letting go is an important requirement. However, this can only be achieved if trust in oneself and the environment can be restored. Change processes therefore need both, the consideration of letting go and also the building of trust in oneself and the new working conditions. Therefore, it can be helpful to communicate convincing reasons for the changes and to refer to the company’s past. For this purpose, previous, solid functions and processes can be transferred from the old to the new organisational form. At the same time, it is important to offer employees a viable alternative to the loss. In order for this to be perceived as possible and binding, obligations and ties between the employees and the organisation should be developed, which are necessary for a favourable course of the change process. This not only awakens hope and the feeling of a new beginning, but also the feeling of having control over the change process.

5. Assess risks and resources

For employees who feel overwhelmed and left alone by the changes in the company, changes and the associated grief work are more difficult to cope with. Therefore it can make sense to activate internal and external resources of the members of the organization. This can reduce fantasies of helplessness and makes mourning easier, so that social support by superiors and colleagues plays an important buffer role here. In order for employees to be able to adapt to the new requirements, it is often helpful to offer appropriate support and assistance. These can be of an emotional or instrumental nature. A strategy on an emotional level can be to share the feelings that break out in the team or with individual colleagues and to talk about one’s own difficulties with the change and the anxieties that go along with it. The opportunity to talk about previous crises and changes in the company can also have a relieving effect. At the same time, instrumental strategies can be used.  These include the assignment of tasks to employees, assistance by specialists or the combination of responsibility and authority.

M.Sc. Julia Perlinger, Coach bei Dynamind.