It was in 1995 that William Bridges first shared his model of personal ‘transition’. Like a number of models considering responses to change, it had been built on Bridges own experiences of grief and loss. He suggested that there were three phases involved in helping people transition through change: Understanding and accepting an Ending, the Neutral Zone and embracing New Beginnings.
Too simple? Maybe. But using models can be a helpful way to describe to leaders some of the behaviours they need to watch out for and the psychological responses that their team members may experience when change is happening. They can be a useful basis for discussion, personal reflection, and learning.
Bridges advocated that transition management is quite different from change management, as it refers to the inner process through which people come to terms with a change, as they let go of how things used to be and reorient themselves to the way things are now. I have often looked at his model and thought of the neutral zone as a swirling river – a place where we could so easily drift if we don’t take positive or deliberate action to move towards the new beginning.
In an organisation, managing transition means helping people to make that difficult process less painful and disruptive. There is no doubt having a model to consider, evidence based or not, can provide a useful reference point for discussing what people are feeling and what a leader may do to lead well during the transition.
Compassionate leaders recognise that change can put people in crisis. Therefore, the starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome or the future, but helping people come to terms with what they have lost – understanding what is ending, that team members need to leave behind.
This brings me to the present day – in such unsettling times, what are the endings that people must accept will be left behind before they can embrace the new ways of working?
Many organisations I have worked with have created inviting and safe work environments over recent years. Colourful office space that housed collaborative areas; places to huddle, cooperate and socialise; subsidised coffee shops or areas for wellbeing and recreation. Far from ticking boxes these investments often showed the employer cares and carefully curated spaces invited increased collaboration and innovation.
Many team members will have come to see these ways of working as part of the culture. As the way we do things. How must they be feeling now they cannot access them? How disorientating now that they are required to work from their one square metre in a spare bedroom, or if yellow and black tape prevents them coming together for weekly huddles, if they are back in the office?
Supporting people through exploring this transition is crucial. But let’s be honest, traversing the neutral zone, requires leader skill and courage.
Team members who are in the neutral zone may experience resentment, isolation, impatience, confusion, or insecurity. Respecting, acknowledging, and appreciating your team members individual responses is important for their and your teams’ transition, so making time for conversations where you show compassion and empathy are crucial.
Your challenge as a leader is that it may not be possible to describe the new beginnings that your organisation is aiming for; there is so much uncertainty. Yet, sharing that vulnerability and offering any clarity on what will continue and for what length of time will be important.
Traversing the neutral zone – the bit between what we have lost and what will be, requires a considered reflection on loss, but be careful not to enable too much wallowing. It is the people and the relationships that have made your teams and your culture so great, not the four walls and subsidised coffee shop. Encourage discussion on how you can continue to support each other, build new relationships and still innovate and deliver, but in a different way.
It may help to explore the way you used to work and why. Why was the way we huddled and collaborated so important? Remember how we encouraged visibility across teams and greater collaboration? We may have lost the facilities and workplace amenities that enabled us, but we can still choose to behave cooperatively, and we can still ‘huddle’ (albeit virtually)!.
So, we encourage leaders to help teams traverse this time by focusing and discussing those behaviours that were important to you and that can be reignited in a different and creative way; establishing a new beginning for ‘how’ (not ‘where’) you will work for the foreseeable future.
How we unite and innovate has never been so important, so seek ideas for how that can be created again – in a different way?
William Bridges died in 2013, but his wife, Susan, a renowned psychologist herself has continued to review the model. She says,
‘The essence of life takes place in the neutral zone phase of transition. It is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity and innovative ideas can come to life and flourish’. Susan Bridges
This struck me as being relevant to our times. Whilst we are perhaps feeling a little stuck in our own transition, maybe feeling like we are treading water, is this the time to embrace the possibilities and lead by example with an enthusiasm for traversing the neutral zone optimistically, despite being unclear what the new beginnings will be?
There is no doubt that everyone goes through the process of transitioning at their own pace. Some are quicker to let go of the past and more excited about the new beginnings. But organisational performance and employee wellbeing can continue to be facilitated and even enhanced if transition is skilfully supported.
If you would like to explore this concept, or would like help with transitioning, please get in touch: email@example.com