How do you respond in a crisis?

Understanding How we Respond to Crises

Half a century ago a Swiss-American psychiatrist wrote a book called ‘on Death and Dying’. What she noticed that people with a terminal diagnosis all seemed to go through the same stages of response – shock, denial, anger, depression and acceptance – which became known as the Kubler-Ross curve. Not surprisingly as patients move through these stages their energy levels and ‘satisfaction’ with their life initially declined. But when they reached the final stage of acceptance, when they had moved on enough to put a new plan in place for their lives, Kubler-Ross found their energy levels and even satisfaction with their lives were actually higher than at the time of diagnosis.

As individuals, many of us who remain in good health at the present time will still be experiencing some of these emotional changes. Your initial response was probably pretty similar to mine - shock, denial, blame, maybe even anger that this could have happened, or who was responsible. That’s understandable – all of us had plans for our businesses, communities and families that had to change, maybe permanently. This though need not be the end of the story. Applying the Kubler-Ross cycle to leadership, the next stage is ‘acceptance’, which brings with it ‘action planning’.


Kubler Ross Change Curve 2018


See where you at in your own response:

Stage 1 - Shock and Denial 

The shock is often due to:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of looking stupid or doing something wrong

Common feelings include:

  • Feeling threatened
  • Fear of failure

Individuals who have not previously experienced major change can be particularly affected by this first stage. It is common for people to convince themselves that the change isn’t actually going to happen, or if it does, that it won’t affect them. Performance often returns to the levels seen before the dip experienced during the initial shock of the change. People carry on as they always have and may deny having received communication about the changes, and may well make excuses to avoid taking part in forward planning.

At this stage, communication is key. Reiterating what the actual change is, the effects it may have, and providing as much reassurance as possible, will all help to support individuals experiencing these feelings.

Stage 2 - Anger and Depression

Common feelings include:

  • Suspicion
  • Scepticism
  • Frustration

The lowest point of the curve comes when the anger begins to wear off and the realisation that the change is genuine hits. It is common for morale to be low, and for self-doubt and anxiety levels to peak. Feelings during this stage can be hard to express, and depression is possible as the impact of what has been lost is acknowledged.

This period can be associated with:

  • Apathy
  • Isolation
  • Remoteness

At this point performance is at its lowest. There is a tendency to fixate on small issues or problems, often to the detriment of day to day tasks. Individuals may continue to perform tasks in the same way as before, even if this is no longer appropriate behaviour.

People will be reassured by the knowledge that others are experiencing the same feelings. Providing managers, teams and individuals with information about the Change Curve underlines that the emotions are usual and shared, and this can help to develop a more stable platform from which to move into the final stage.

Stage 3 - Acceptance and Integration

After the darker emotions of the second stage, a more optimistic and enthusiastic mood begins to emerge. Individuals accept that change is inevitable, and begin to work with the changes rather than against them.

Now come thoughts of:

  • Exciting new opportunities
  • Relief that the change has been survived
  • Impatience for the change to be complete

The final steps involve integration. The focus is firmly on the future and there is a sense that real progress can now be made. By the time everyone reaches this stage, the changed situation has firmly replaced the original and becomes the new reality. The primary feelings now include:

  • Acceptance
  • Hope
  • Trust

During the early part of this stage, energy and productivity remain low, but slowly begin to show signs of recovery. Everyone will have lots of questions and be curious about possibilities and opportunities. Normal topics of conversation resume, and a wry humour is often used when referring to behaviour earlier in the process.

Individuals will respond well to being given specific tasks or responsibilities, however, communication remains key. Regular progress reports and praise help to cement the more buoyant mood. It is not uncommon for there to be a return to an earlier stage if the level of support suddenly drops.

Source: Academia. (n.d) Retrieved from


What next?

Being able to accept radical change being imposed on us is not easy. We’re a social species, and one way to be able to do this is to talk, to hear from others with similar situations and be able to express our own experiences, fears and thoughts. That’s what we at Social Enterprise Academy have been doing this week, by creating online Peer Response Groups.

We’ve brought together cohorts of 10 or so community and social enterprise leaders online, to share experiences and perspectives. Knowing that others are going through the same experience is crucial for the acceptance phase. Even better, knowing that others are beginning to form plans for the future, is inspiring.

Not everyone reacts in exactly the same way, some are able to move quickly through the cycle. The Change Curve is a very useful tool when managing individual or team change. Knowing where an individual is on the curve will help when deciding on what type of support someone needs and when they are ready to take on new challenges.

One way we can support our colleagues is through coaching, to help them move through acceptance and onto action planning. As we, as a sector, move through the Change Curve in our own personal Covid-19 experience, Social Enterprise Academy is providing one-to-one coaching sessions. No cost, all social enterprise, third sector and community leaders in Scotland welcome.

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