Cycle of Acceptance

The Cycle of Acceptance is a predictable cycle most people and organizations go through upon receipt of very bad news, which includes an opinion that differs radically from one own.

Entering the cycle is unavoidable. How long it takes a person or organization to complete the cycle is critical. The longer they're in it, the less likely they will ever fully complete the cycle and the less likely they will be able to deal with the problem wisely. The cycle looks like this:

Diagram of Cycle of Acceptance

Click on the image to see a larger one for easier reading or printing. The cycle is adapted from the widely used Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, where the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Why this is important

Study the diagram closely. The key steps are denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. These are easily memorized.

Ask yourself, if my environmental organization suddenly found out it had been following the wrong problem solving process for decades, would that throw our organization into the Cycle of Acceptance, and thus into denial? Or might we go further and slip into the anger step, and shoot the messenger?

It probably would, because that's exactly what's happened with the organizations I've worked with so far, as of May 2006. (As of November 2011 when this article was last updated, the pattern is about the same, though a few organizations are showing signs of making it to the acceptance stage.) All have exhibited either denial and/or anger immediately.

It is vitally important to recognize when one has entered the Cycle of Acceptance due to receipt of new information (such as an opinion or an alternative) that differs radically from your present one. There's no need to engage in denial, anger, and depression. One can objectively go immediately to the bargaining step. There you calmly weigh the new versus the old, and accept the new that's better and leave the old that's worse behind.

Application example

For example, here's what one respected environmental leader wrote to me in an email, after I posted a message on a document a forum group was discussing. The forum was moderated. My post was rejected. Here's what the leader said:

“Hi Jack,

We have been strongly urged by many participants to filter posts that take the discussion afield. I have concerns with your post (most trivially, that the link doesn't seem to be active). Your statement: 'The most basic premise in the article is the one that's never stated. This premise assumes that if a realistic, well justified vision of a New Economy is presented to the right people and resolutions are passed, it will happen.' Not so and I don't know how you could make such inscriptions. Then, (name of forum) comments have to be more than redirecting the group to one's own (or someone else's) more enlightened and superior work.

I respect your passion and energy, but perhaps (name of forum) is not right for you. This needs to be a collective endeavor by an extraordinary group that approaches the discourse constructively and humbly.

All the best, (name).”

Note the strong denial and the rationalization used to justify his position. My post included an attached document which analyzed the document the group was discussing. It presented clear, compelling reasons the implied premise was unsound. The link was to the paper on Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem. The link was working. But when a person is in a state of denial and anger, not everything works. Note also the aggression in "more enlightened and superior work."

As another example, here's what a mid-level manager of a major environmental organization had to say to me, after reading part one of the manuscript to Analytical Activism. The manager has an MBA and thus should perhaps not be so easily led astray:

“I realize from your perspective that the environmental movement might look like a failure and our approaches irrational; however from my perspective it does not. It is a work in progress that I am delighted to participate in. There have been and continue to be many successes, some small and some major. Because you are working outside of the movement and are at home, you do not see the progress. You see the failures because they are more widely reported.”

This is denial. Here's what the CEO of the same organization, which has over 300 employees, wrote me, after reading the same material:

“…an organization like the [name of organization] is unlikely to embrace an entire new approach at once, however valid. I think you and your colleagues will feel less frustrated, and will make more rapid progress, if you seek to influence the ongoing dialogues on various issues within the [name of organization] as well as offering your own entirely new approach. …this is an organization that often responds better to a series of coordinated, incremental nudges than to a big, bold, new idea.”

However carefully worded this may be, it is also denial. But it gets worse. The same person, after the majority of their members' delegates voted for "a new way of thinking" at a national convention, wrote me:

“I guess I really couldn't tell you what the vote for a new way of thinking meant -- it came out of the blue for me and was not expected.  But I do think it indicates that people are open to new approaches -- but I did hear from several people that your proposal struck them as overly complex and difficult to implement in a grass-roots organization so you may want to try to create a much simpler presentation -- you may be losing people in the details.”

Step 3: Denial - This is more denial. The executive is clearly rejecting the new way of thinking that his own organization wants and the new approaches I have offered as well. In both passages, he justifies his position with a rationalization. In the first passage it is that I am not following proper channels or "ongoing dialogues." In the second passage the rationalization is that my "proposal" is "overly complex and difficult to implement." Neither is true, because as an experienced business consultant I have seen a completely different reaction from business managers to similar documents and face to face discussions of mine. Their reaction to the bad news of a poor assessment, presented with alternatives on how to improve, was to eagerly accept the bad news and move right into discussing how to best pursue the alternatives to improvement.

Step 4: Anger - And then there is anger. The day one mid level environmental organization manager (who was also a professor at Yale University) read an analysis of mine that pointed out that organization was failing to achieve its objectives and offered a better way, that person called me up and proceeded to scold me for about 40 minutes. In their opinion, I didn't know enough about their organization to say what I said, and I should not say it anyhow, because it had not been agreed upon by them, and they've been having problems and are aware of them, and how do you get volunteers to do anything anyhow, and so on. They were so angry the phone just about melted in my hand. Whenever I tried to say anything, I was quickly interrupted. I've never had a call like this before, so we have definitely touched a raw nerve. But this is a known phenomenon. It is the anger stage of the Cycle of Acceptance. Anger directed toward the bearer of bad news is known as shooting the messenger, which is a type of ad hominem argument.

Step 5: Depression - The depression step for organizations is similar to depression for people, who withdraw into their own world. This is similar to the way some organizations start to keep as much as possible secret, or do lots of work internally and little externally, so as to avoid confrontation and criticism, and to create a sense of importance and self-worth. There is a lot of dysfunctional behavior associated with depression in people and organizations. It takes many forms. Basically it seems to be avoidance of the truth, so that the truth is less painful.

Step 6: Bargaining - In the bargaining step an organization starts to question itself, such as: "Maybe this bad news has some truth to it, don't you think? What might happen if it was true? I don't think we should be embarrassed that we failed in the past. It was a tough problem. But you know, I would be even more embarrassed if we failed to see that maybe this bad news is in some way good news. For example, this assessment that shows why we have done such a poor job for the last several decades seems to have a few valid points. It's not all wrong. I think that maybe we should at least take a look at some of the things in it that may be true."

Step 7: Acceptance - Bargaining leads to the acceptance step. Basically, acceptance in the business world means admitting that you made a mistake or an undesirable situation is not going to go away, or both. Extremely mature managers and organizations arrive at the acceptance step almost instantly by skipping the other steps, because they are such a waste of time and energy. You can too, once you know the Cycle of Acceptance for what it is. Only after bad news is fully accepted can an organization begin to deal effectively with how to best adapt to change.

After reading the material on, where are you and your organization in the Cycle of Acceptance?

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A Form of Change Resistance

If the so-called bad news is something you need to do but are resisting, then the Cycle of Acceptance is the Cycle of Change Resistance. It's perfectly normal for people and organizations to resist most changes. That gives them stability. But changes that will benefit the person or group should not provoke change resistance.

But they do. Once a behavior is repeated for a long time, it become a habit that's often impossible to change. If the habit includes many behaviors, then it's a paradigm and the cycle is the Kuhn Cycle.