Adapting To And Managing The Only Thing That Is Constant: Change
A few years ago when I was in the midst of a significant life change, I saw the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. To my surprise, the movie impacted me deeply, though it took some time and reflection to understand exactly why. I thought I had flawlessly moved through my life change, but I could not dismiss the strong emotions brought up by the film. Through most of the story, Sandra Bullock’s character floats by herself in outer space, desperately trying to get home. I realized that her experience of being ‘untethered’ was exactly the way I was feeling too. I was no longer tethered to my old life, but neither was I quite tethered to a new life – I was floating somewhere in between in a space that felt extremely uncomfortable.
I know now that what I experienced as ‘untethered-ness’ is one of the core phases of change. Yet, during times of change, organizational leaders tend to devote most of their time and attention to the ‘new’ – the newly merged company, the new structure, cultural values, processes, ways of operating and so on. Most leaders recognize that communication is critical and go to great lengths to over-communicate about the desired state and how to get there. This is indeed valuable; however, there continues to be much more to the story.
In his book Transitions, William Bridges describes the underlying psychological process – the transition – that people go through during an organizational change. Whereas organizational change is an outward process, transition is the inward one. Transition tends to take longer and is even more unpredictable than designing and implementing the business and operational aspects of change.
There are three phases to transition: Endings, the Neutral Zone, and Beginnings. Endings are about saying goodbye to and grieving the old way of life – the system that is being replaced, the colleagues who are relocating, the plant that is shutting down. Endings often involve the loss of something personal, such as status, control, identity, relationships or valued expertise. Sometimes endings are welcomed; other times, letting go can be quite difficult and painful.
The Neutral Zone is the phase I was experiencing when I saw the movie Gravity. It is the in-between time that is full of emptiness and space. It can be disorienting, feeling as though there is nothing to latch onto and hold us into place. This phase is often the most unpleasant and uncomfortable of all.
The phase of Beginnings involves adopting the new way. As each person works through Endings and the Neutral Zone, they start to grasp a new beginning and all the potential and opportunities it can bring.
Employees do not necessarily experience the phases of transition in a linear fashion. Instead, they are likely to circle through the different phases at different times before fully moving into the new beginning. It is also typical for people to experience elements of all three phases at once. The hope, of course, is that as time goes on, the new beginning becomes stronger and stronger until it is firmly in place.
When you are managing and navigating organizational change, keep in mind the following:
Stay aware of your own transition process. Whatever role you have through change, stay aware of your internal experience and where you are in the transition process. It is difficult to effectively lead others if you are unaware what is happening within yourself.
Acknowledge employees’ experiences through the transition phases. Transition is a unique process, and employees are likely to be all over the map in terms of their experiences and timing. It is important for change leaders to refer to each of the three transition phases in order to validate what employees are undoubtedly going through.
Allow time and space for employees to work through the transition. Timelines for implementing change need to make space for the psychological process of transition. Provide opportunities for employees to talk about their experiences and balance the desire to quickly implement change with patience for the journey through transition.
As we all know, change is ubiquitous in our lives and organizations today. But the commonality and rate of change does not mean that the internal experience of transition is any simpler. If leaders can stay aware of the transition process, validate it with employees, and allow space for transition, organizational change will be much healthier, more engaging and ultimately more successful.