Stages of Grief at Work

Much has been written about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

I am thinking about this, because a family member is currently dealing with cancer.  He spent some time in denial (delayed seeing a doctor).  He spent months bargaining (if I become a vegan, this will go away).  I spotted no signs of anger or depression. 

Thus I agree with those who say that that Kübler-Ross’ stages are not inevitable nor necessarily sequential.

Nevertheless, I find that these “stages” do describe the range of possible responses to problems.  I find them useful for understanding a range of dysfunctions you might have to deal with at work.


Harold Bennett as Mr. Grace:  Source Wikipedia

Harold Bennett as Mr. Grace: Source Wikipedia

Managers who deny problems are basically lying to themselves and others.  This brings to mind Young Mr. Grace on the old British TV show “Are You Being Served”.  Everyone in the department was a total screw up, but Mr. Grace would stop by and cheerily say “You’ve all done very well!”  This rosy attitude is one that allows problems to fester, and makes improvement impossible because no-one is held to account.

People in denial will often lie to you.  At a recent gig (I freelance now) I asked an accounting supervisor how to fix a problem I uncovered.  “You can’t” she said.  That was patently false.  The software vendor would not make it impossible to fix this problem.

After spending considerable time on the issue, and after going on the vendor’s web site, I discovered that I had restricted permissions on that particular screen.  I went back and asked her to log in, because she had expanded permissions.  Here, I said, this field is incorrect for this record.  X needs to be changed to Y.  She then fixed it for me.  A two minute fix took me two hours to solve because this woman was in full avoidance mode.

In getting to know her I discovered that she hid problems, and would sometimes quietly correct something and then deny it had ever happened.  Imagine having to report to someone like her full time!


Bargaining is part of a constellation of magical behaviors.  Thus, if a huge error occurred, the response might be to fix something else.  If there’s an unrelated project you are lagging on, you might get motivated complete it, as though to say that in the grand scheme of things the problem is not so bad.  Everything else is going along great.

Bargaining cannot magically transport you back in time and lessen the magnitude or the impact of the problem, nor does it absolve you from the responsibility of dealing swiftly with the consequences.

In Star Wars Obi Wan Kenobe says “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” and the storm troopers let them pass.  In case clarification is needed, Jedi mind tricks aren’t real.  

I was really concerned when my family member delayed treatment for a number of months because he wanted to go the “all natural” route. 

I wrote to him

The actions you take to prevent a glass from breaking are very different from the actions that you must take once the glass has broken.

Accepting that the glass has broken is a process that, unfortunately, can take time.


In my career I have worked with people who are quick to anger, and are rude to customers and coworkers alike.  I let Veronica know that her job was on the line.  I sent her to a workshop on dealing with difficult people.  I got this idea from my boss who said she was sent to a “difficult people” course early in her career.  During that course she realized that she was the difficult one, and that’s why she had been sent.  So I tried that.

Veronica’s behavior improved to the point that we did not have to fire her.  She remained quick to anger but was able to control it a bit better.  The thing I learned by talking with Veronica was that she was the one who felt victimized.  This surprised me.  I had thought of bullies as people who throw around their power.

Actually bullies feel very powerless.  They see the locus of control as external to themselves, and they attempt to gain control by lashing out.  This, of course, is fruitless.


Anger and depression are actually two sides of the same coin.  In both circumstances the person sees the locus of control as external.  The response is fight (anger) or flight (depression).   The depressed person generally understands there is a problem.  You might actually get the truth out of someone who is depressed.

Depressed employees have to be encouraged to take action. You don’t have the expertise to “fix” them.  When an employee’s husband died her attendance and productivity plummeted.  In counselling her I said more or less the following:

There is no timetable. You probably have no clear idea of the path that lies ahead of you.  But I think you might be able to describe a “next step”.  What do you think that might be? 

She said her doctor had recommended a grief group.  I asked her if she felt that was the right next step for her.  Yes, she agreed.  OK, I said.  Let’s talk again next week.  Will you have called the grief group by then?  She agreed.

I have found the “next step” question very useful.  People often can describe the next step they need to take.  They can often do it, because it is small and a full solution is not demanded immediately.


Accepting a problem is the necessary first step in taking appropriate action.  It is telling the truth, and that’s your starting point.

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