“Change is like grief”: why your team may be struggling – and how to respond

Written by CMI Insights Monday 22 June 2020
A leadership deep dive into how to empathise, motivate and – yes – continue to challenge your team during difficult times
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In CMI’s recent Leadership Deep Dive webinar, Air Vice Marshal Warren ‘Bunny’ James and Wing Commander Emma Keith unpicked some of the challenges that managers and leaders were facing in the wake of Covid-19. With the help of illustrative models, catch phrases and emotion-based learnings, here are some of the ways these two exceptional leaders have continued to motivate their team and keep themselves learning...

The overlap between change and grief

Right now, the whole world is going through a period of upheaval and change; this is a universal experience that is triggering many emotional reactions, large and small. Using the Kubler-Ross change curve to illustrate her point, Wing Commander Emma Keith explains that many people undergoing a period of change feel emotions similar to those going through a period of grief.

“We don’t move through the change curve in a linear fashion,” says Emma, “but move forwards and backwards as different emotions come up.” Emotional rock bottom is defined by ‘crisis’, with the end point, or emotional aim, being to become newly confident and thrive in the new order of things.

“Leaders tend to move through the change curve faster than the rest of their team,” Emma says. This explains why so many leaders can embrace the change and find the opportunities in the situation before their employees. They can often, however, get frustrated that their new, changed, rhetoric is falling onto deaf ears or unresponsive teams. This can be further exacerbated by leaders knowing material about the change in advance, as it naturally means the leader is more emotionally prepared, whereas their teams are starting from square one.

“People in your team may be further behind [in the Kubler-Ross Change Curve] than you and still experiencing these quite painful emotions,” says Emma. Understanding the neuroscience behind the grief will enable you to understand and unpack it with each individual.


As well as creating the SCARF model, which identifies five drivers for performance and effort at work (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness) David Rock also coined the term “neuro-leadership”. He saw, says Emma, “a connection between us understanding how someone’s brain works to understanding how people work. Understanding how people work helps us to lead and to make the most of leadership opportunities.”

“Sometimes we have an air gap between common sense and common practice,” explains Emma. She uses the example of eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day: we know that it makes sense but it’s not everybody’s common practice. In relation to being a leader, this means that we may grasp, in theory, the importance of understanding how people work and are affected by external factors (eg, Covid-19 and lockdown) but in practice, we don’t know how to identify problems and put measures in place to overcome them.

Rock’s SCARF model enables you to find out the individual performance drivers of your team, and figure out which needs are not being met in this new way of working. This way, you can uncover the emotional impact of the crisis on their workload and performance alongside the key driver and motivation for their best efforts.

Learn, earn and return

Air Vice-Marshal Bunny James was asked in a recent webinar with CMI’s CEO Ann Francke whether ‘keep calm and carry on’ was an apt reaction to the current Covid-19 crisis. He came up with this slogan: Learn, Earn and Return, which was originally about “learning throughout our early and formative years, then earning money in a career, and then giving back (returning experience) to our organization or individuals through mentoring and coaching.”

However, ‘Learn, Earn and Return’ may be used in a different way through and beyond the COVID crisis, as a potential tool for yourself, your team and your wider business:

Learning presents the opportunity to reflect on what you’re learning about yourself and how you react to change; what leadership skills have come to the fore. It also encourages you to look at your team, to see how well they’re coping and adapting (perhaps using the SCARF model and your understanding of Kubler-Ross), and use your position to plug any gaps and commend any progress.

Earning translates to earning trust, respect and more intangible human connectivity; “What do you do now that you didn’t do before to gain and maintain that respect? It’s not just about trusting those below you, it’s about them trusting you.”

Returning here refers to returning experiences and using your learnings to teach others around you of your successes (and failures). If you’ve adapted your leadership style, implemented new communication methods, or adapted processes successfully, use what you are learning and seeing from others and return this into the business for others to benefit from. “What energy can you put back into the organization to show it’s a safe space to learn?”

The perks of failing

Finally, a key aspect of the ‘earn, learn and return’ model is that it gives organizations the space and permission to fail quickly. When everything is having to be reactive and turned around quickly, it’s inevitable that some spinning plates will fall and break. The key thing here, says Bunny, is that you can use any failures to learn, and in doing so “fail – quickly – in ways that aren’t critical, but let us realize that everybody is going through some kind of challenge.” A leader recognizing and admitting their failings and showing how to get up again is a powerful example for others.

You can watch this discussion in full here. Why not check out the other upcoming topics in our new series of free webinars?

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