Change and transition are often thought of as the same and they definitely are not. Change is what you are trying to achieve ~ a merger, reorganization, lean enterprise system, or process improvement. Transition is the “stuff” people go through internally to adapt to the new situation the change will bring.

Transition is that grey area in between the black and white of what is ending and what is beginning. It’s unpredictable and uncomfortable. As a result, we are a transition resistant culture. A family member dies and we get three days off to grieve. Someone gets fired and security is waiting to help pack up and show them the door in an hour. We start a new job Monday and are expected to “hit the ground running” by Wednesday.

Not only are we unwilling to take the time to deal with feelings, we are uncomfortable with the “icky-ness” factor. The safer route is to ask everyone to “stay positive” and to discourage any expression of negative emotions. That may feel safe, but beware. Unvented feelings can resurface as denial, anger, fear, frustration, cynicism, and skepticism. Throw this resistance into the mix and the wrestling with change is in full swing.

Consider a more realistic approach like the change/transition model offered up by a brilliant pioneer in the field of organizational change, William Bridges. He advocates understanding the psychological responses to change before jumping in to the mechanics of implementing it. Situational changes are not as difficult for companies to make as the psychological transitions of the people impacted by the change.

There are three phases of typical reaction to change, according to Bridges.

(1) Ending, Loss, Letting Go

A question I often ask individuals or groups in transition is: what has to die in order for this new thing to live? Organizational change may involve loss of a job, hierarchical status, personal identity, inter-personal relationships, or the security of an established work routine. Hanging on to the past gives people a sense of control, however false.  It is critical to identify what is being lost, grieve those losses, and let them go.

(2) The Neutral Zone

Metaphorically, this is the moment when the trapeze artist lets go of one bar and has not yet grasped the other hopefully coming his way. Reactions range from fear, confusion, stress, indecision, discouragement, cynicism, and ultimately to acceptance and even creativity.  In the chaos of uncertainty, organizations have an opportunity to achieve breakthrough ideas. Creativity demands time, reflection, experimentation, and even dissent.

(3) The New Beginning

The merger happens, the  reorganization takes place, the new system goes live.  Anxiety may slowly be replaced by hope, enthusiasm and even impatience. The trick here is to fully engage people in making the new way work. Successful leaders will consistently role model the new way, recognize and reinforce new behaviors, and celebrate small successes to gain momentum and traction.

Even when the decisions have been made, the goals have been set, and everyone knows what needs to be done, readiness to close the old calendar and open the new one may well depend upon leadership’s ability to lead not only the change but the transition as well.


Article: Transition As the Way Through by William Bridges

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