The impact of an unexpected collision can leave us dazed and reeling. A good friend was standing on a ski slope when suddenly, out of the blue, he felt himself flying through the air then laid on his back in intense pain and struggling to breathe. It turned out another skier had lost control and hit him at speed from behind. The impact could have killed him. Another friend was hit by a trike. He was riding his motorcycle and stopped at traffic lights. Unfortunately, the trike rider behind him didn’t see he had stopped and hit him hard. My friend lived but sustained serious head injuries.
I’ve lived through similar impacts and, 19 motorcycle accidents and 8 car crashes later, I have the aches and scars to prove it. There are parallels in psychological and emotional realms too, e.g. the impact of receiving unexpected and devastating news that can leave the whole world crashing down around us. Such experiences can leave us broken, disorientated and struggling to breathe. They may trigger fight-flight-freeze: we may scream, shout, kick, punch, run for cover or feel numb, paralysed. Our hope, life and existence can feel threatened. It takes time, rest and care to recover.
Yet there are also collisions of a very different kind. These are the serendipitous encounters, events and experiences that shift and reshape us positively. They alter radically our paradigms and beliefs and lift our eyes and hearts to a totally different plane. I remember when Jesus collided with me at age 21. The impact shook my life to its very core, transcending and transforming my deepest hopes and fears. I remember too so many ordinary-extraordinary people, places and experiences that have stimulated, disrupted, supported and challenged me. Collisions can be a life-giving gift.
So - I’m interested: what have been your worst and best collisions? How have they impacted and shaped you?
An organisation I work with is moving office this weekend. I spoke with one person today who commented that he feels sad to leave the building. When I invited him to elaborate, he explained that he has worked with the organisation for 15 years. He has seen and experienced lots of changes and yet this, somehow, feels like the end of an era in the organisation’s life and in his life too. The change from one building to another feels like an important physical and psychological transition.
There’s an idea in developmental psychology that, from an early age, during times of change we can attach meaning to objects that provide a sense of comfort and security (see, for instance, ‘More Than Just Teddy Bears’: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-guest-room/201407/more-just-teddy-bears). We could think of this as a bit like a person who clings onto a piece of drift wood when lost at sea. The wood can keep the person afloat and reduce the feeling of (total) isolation.
If the piece of wood is from the broken ship, it can provide a sense of psychological connection with what-was before. Holding onto the wood can provide a psychological sense of safety. It isn’t just me vs endless, boundary-less water. I am with this object, the log, and the log is with me. The log, by keeping me afloat, can provide me with a psychological sense of hope that I will get through this. In this sense, the log can take on a psychological significance for me that lays far beyond the log itself.
If we apply this insight during change in people’s and organisations’ lives, we can look out for things – whether, say, objects or routines – that people or groups now imbue with special significance. It could be, for instance, a photo or plant on the desk, a habitual conversation at coffee break, whatever people need to provide (enough) sense of security as they move forward. To offer support in the midst of this, avoid the temptation to label as ‘resistance’ and ask simply, ‘What do you need?’
‘We need to talk.’ 4 short words that can send a chill running down the spine. Perhaps it taps into being caught out as a child. That look from a parent or teacher when we know we’re in trouble. My wife called me into a room. ‘I want a divorce.’ 4 short, sharp words that created that same cold shiver. The room starts to spin, pulse races, breathing feels difficult. Fight, flight, freeze. Shock.
I want to run but my feet feel glued to the ground. It’s like I can’t move. Words clutter my brain and I speak but it all comes out clumsily, awkwardly, wrong. I feel angry and sad and understanding and confused. My wife’s face is telling its own story but I can’t read it. She looks absolutely the same and yet completely different. This is the woman I’ve known for 25 years. Scared – intimate strangers.
Life change really can feel like this, especially unexpected, out-of-the-blue change. It can send us reeling, a psychological, emotional and physical jolt. Debilitating and disorientating, dizzying in its effects. It draws deep spiritual and existential questions into sharp focus. ‘Why is this happening to me?’, ‘How could we have got here?’ It feels like grasping at mist, straining to take hold of God.
Perhaps you’re a leader, leading people through organisational change. Perhaps you’re a coach, therapist or trainer, working with people through transition. Here are 4 words of advice in such situations: Empathy: give people cathartic space to feel; Listen: create opportunities for people to talk; Patience: allow time for people to process what they're going through; Speak: 4 words – ‘I am with you.’
The best bit about the first day of a new year at school was getting a brand new exercise book. I remember writing my name v…e…r…y carefully on the front cover, trying to make my writing as neat as possible. And then the first page, blank and clean. I remember the feeling too as I wrote on it for the first time. The new page was a thing of perfect beauty. I didn’t want to make any mark that could spoil or detract from it. The pen would glide smoothly on the soft, fresh paper. Exquisite.
The new book represented a fresh start for me. No matter what successes or mistakes I had made in the previous year, no matter how many scribbles on the cover or crossings out on that year’s tattered pages, it was all behind me now. I could start all over again. All that new day, the future, held for me now was potential. And that experience, that awareness of endings and beginnings, has stayed with me, firstly when I became a follower of Jesus and then in my professional life too.
Gestalt psychology places interesting and helpful emphasis on ‘closure’. It marks the ending of one phase, one episode, one experience and thereby creates positive psychological and emotional space and energy to transition healthily to another. There are parallels in personal development and change leadership too. It’s as if by pausing, acknowledging and honouring one stage of our lives or work, it can enable us to face, invite and embrace the future with open arms, minds and hearts.
So what does this mean for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? 1. Plan for key milestones, e.g. in strategies, projects and personal lives. 2. Invite people involved to say how they would love to mark them. 3. Create space to address the past, e.g. celebrations, failures and learning as well as thanks, apologies and forgiveness if needed. 4. Pay careful attention if people feel stuck, unable to move on. 5. Engender a sense of blank sheet and renewal as people move forward.
Perhaps it’s natural to think about change in the new year. It marks a new calendar period, the start of brighter evenings, a change of seasons…depending on where you are in the world. The first time I visited Thailand was a big change for me, my first experience of Asia, somewhere I had longed to visit for years. It was December, the end of one year with a new year in sight. It was a development programme for leaders from 17 countries, an exciting experience.
One of the speakers, Dr Lim Peng Soon, led a day looking at Managing Transitions, based on William Bridges’ research and writings under that same title. I want to share some of his insights here, drawing on Bridges and some of my own insights too in case they may be of benefit to others. I’m also interested to hear more from you on this topic, e.g. what have you experienced, noticed or learned when leading or coaching others through change?
We can distinguish between ‘change’ and ‘transition’ as something like this: change is what happens around us; transition is what happens within us. In other words, change is situational, transition is psychological or even spiritual. The latter is a process of reorientation from what-has-been to what-is-going-to-be. This involves moving from endings (leaving the past) through a ‘neutral zone’ (the inbetween phase) to a new beginning (the future state).
If change leaders don’t pay attention to leading transitions alongside leading change, they can lose talented people, struggle with communication as anxiety is high or trust is eroded, find low levels of poor performance or high levels of stress and absenteeism. This demands attention from the outset. How people experience leadership and change will have as much impact on the desired outcomes as practical change plans and programmes.
As Soon comments, ‘In change management you start with the end in mind. In transitions management you start with the end-ings in mind’. This points to the need to recognise that change often implies loss or leaving. Who will lose what? How far does it matter to them? How can we mark endings and show proper respect for the past? What can we hold onto alongside that which will change in order to ensure a degree of continuity?
The endings phase starts as soon as people become aware of the changes. As leaders, it’s a phase that at its best entails drawing close to people, listening to them, hearing their questions and concerns. Too much emphasis on a positive future can feel insensitive at this stage, especially if it seems to negate or prohibit people sharing how they feel about the loss that change implies. ‘When you’re feeling the pain, it can be hard to see the gain.’
The neutral zone is where people often feel ambiguous or disorientated. They may be starting to move on but haven’t yet let go of the past or grasped hold of the future. During this phase, the future may seem unclear, uncertain or scary. People may feel more confused, irritable and tired than usual. They may appear to zigzag between moods, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes despondent. As leaders, listen, be patient and be prepared to provide support.
The new beginnings phase is where the proverbial psychological dust is beginning to settle, the future looks clearer, people start to feel more focused and energised and previous difficulties are perceived as opportunities or challenges. People are ready to move on, to push ahead with creating and stepping into the future state. As leaders, this is the time to positively envision, to stoke the fires of inspiration, to involve people in creative and engaging tasks.
In my experience, one of the biggest leadership challenges is to be sensitive and patient throughout the transition. Leaders tend to go through transitions faster because they create and lead the change. It takes time for other people to work through the changes the leaders have already processed. People can be inappropriately labelled as ‘resistant to change’ when they are simply working through a normal transition process and experience.
On this point, Soon cautions us to be aware of the ‘marathon effect’. Leaders may race ahead and become very critical of people apparently lagging behind, especially if they appear to be holding up the changes. In a marathon, the front row sets off first but it takes a while for the middle section to start moving and even longer for people at the back. By the time people in the middle and back sections are moving, leaders can be already racing off to the next initiative.
Finally, the fact that people go through the same change doesn't mean they go through the same transition. Some may embrace change enthusiastically from the outset, others may struggle at first but move on to become solid supporters in time. In Bridges' model, people tend to experience something of all three states simultaneously. It's really a question of which is the dominant state at any point in time and to act as leaders and coaches accordingly.
Donald Winnicott had a theory which goes something like this. When a baby is born, it’s unable to distinguish its own self from its environment. It identifies its own existence inextricably with the existence of its primary caregiver, most often its mother. Over time, as the child develops a clearer and distinctive sense of self, it naturally grows in independence. As the child makes this transition, it typically latches onto an object (often something like a toy or a blanket) which provides an interim sense of relational presence, security and continuity, including when the caregiver is absent.
Winnicott referred to such objects as ‘transitional objects’, that is, objects that enable the child’s healthy psychological transition from merged identity to separate identity. According to this theory, the child invests its security in the object, identifies closely with it thereby it serves as a defence against anxiety. Because the child hasn’t yet developed a full and secure sense of self-identity, if the transitional object is removed, changed or appears to be threatened (e.g. if the caregiver takes the toy away to wash it) during this phase, the child can feel as if its own security is threatened.
Over time, however, most children learn to let go of the transitional object without feeling a sense of anxiety or loss. It’s as if the object has functioned as a kind of psychological bridge for the child during the transition process and, once crossed, the child no longer needs it. The question occurs of what happens for a child if the transitional experience is absent, inconsistent or disrupted. How does this influence the child’s sense of self and security in the world and in future relationships? Could the child-as-adult subconsciously grasp at other objects to enable the still unfulfilled transition?
It’s difficult, of course, to know with any degree of clarity and certainty how a baby actually experiences itself, its environment and its relationship to it. Theories such as Winnicott’s above serve as a working hypothesis. There are resonances with how adults respond to change, however, that I find fascinating and compelling. I’ve observed intriguing examples of this transitional principle manifest itself in practice. In one such case, an organisation I worked with as consultant was facing considerable change and its members were facing an uncertain future.
In the midst of these changes, one of the members decided to remove a wooden lectern from the podium from which the leader normally spoke. To his great surprise, this simple action almost provoked rebellion. It’s as if the lectern had been imbued with special symbolic significance, a transitional object that provided members with a sense of continuity with the past and thereby security in the present in the midst of considerable anxiety. Psychodynamically, the uncertainty of the current transition may have reverberated subconsciously with earlier transitions in childhood.
In a similar vein, William Bridges wrote a now famous book, Managing Transitions that explores how people in organisations deal with shifting between realities during times of organisational change. He speaks in particular of how to lead people though the interim phase, the ‘neutral zone’ where the past is left behind but the future is not yet reached. Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes on similar lines in her article, Managing the Human Side of Change on how to avoid inadvertently evoking psychodynamic defensive routines. Interestingly, Bridges draws on parallels from Exodus in the Bible.
The biblical narrative posits a radically theocentric worldview in which God takes his people on a journey, a ‘transition’, from places of relative security through wilderness and insecurity towards a promised future. The Israelites and later Christians are called upon to hold onto God, to trust him above all else. This demands profound and at times nail-biting, nerve-stretching faith in the midst of all kinds of confusing and challenging circumstances. It's a tough call to step from known into unknown, from safety into risk. In light of Winnicott’s theory, I find this spiritual metaphysic curious and intriguing.
It depicts life and human history as a macro transition process, mirrored like fractals in our earliest childhood and in different aspects of personal and social experience. We encounter, invest in and draw from ‘transitional objects’ on route, those critical relationships, experiences and resources that hold the potential to define, make sense of and fulfil our deepest identity and purpose. Some believe that faith in God is a projection of psychological need onto an imaginary being. Could it be possible, however, that God hardwired this pattern for transition into our psychological DNA?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.