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.