“Sometimes when I run transition management workshops for organizations, I ask people to rearrange themselves in a circle by birthday and then use their new configuration to divide up in small working groups,” describes William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Bridges says he does this to allow people to experience firsthand what it feels like to go through a transition. People participating in the workshop can see the whole group going through the three phases of transition, right before their eyes, as they psychologically let go of their old seating spots within the meeting space, mill about in the unsure chaos of the “neutral zone” and find a new seating location for themselves. “If there are fixed chairs, it takes forever for people to make their way from one location to another…And because of its more complicated dynamics, a very big group takes much longer to reconfigure itself than a small group,” Bridges shares. So it is with organizational transitions and change. It takes a period of letting go, dealing with a loss of identity and a loss of the familiar ways of doing things. There’s an uncomfortable in-between period where people find themselves in limbo; the old is gone but the new ways are not yet implemented and the employee’s new identity is not fully developed.  Lastly, there is a phase where people develop their new identity, work ways are more established and people discover a new sense of purpose which makes the change doable.

Perhaps, due to the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic period, your work unit or organization is taking a second look at the old ways of working and transitioning to new ways of working. If so, it’s the perfect time to consider the personal and human side of change when configuring your organization’s transition plan. According to Bridges, change is defined as situational, such as a move to a new site or the retirement of an organization’s founder, whereas transition is psychological. Transition is the process that people go through as they come to terms with and internalize the new situation that the change brought about. 

It’s so easy for organizations to focus on the end result and the desired outcomes of change management and forget to acknowledge the first step of transition management, which is actually an ending, a losing, and a letting go. Even good changes start with something else ending. To cite a non-workplace example, the arrival of a new baby into the lives of new parents is a good change, but it requires the letting go of alone time, extra money, and the sacrifice of good sleep! Similarly, before you can begin anything new, you must put an end to what used to be. In the workplace, organizations that overlook the loss of what was and refuse to acknowledge the letting go process of what used to be, according to Bridges, “nearly guarantees that the transition will be mismanaged and that, as a result, the change will go badly”.

The most wonderful of transition plans often fall flat when they don’t account for helping people through these psychological phases. To be effective, leaders must guide organizations and individuals through the transitions that accompany significant change. Those organizations that carefully design their transition plans, accounting for the three transitional processes: ending of old ways, the “neutral time” where innovation and revitalization is most possible, and the new beginning period, have much greater transition plan success. In the workspace, there is a need for employees to wander through the wilderness of confusion and uncertainty in order for people to grapple with the challenges of their new circumstances. A new beginning will only take place after people are ready to emotionally invest themselves, to do things in a new way and see themselves as new people. “Beginnings,” explains Bridges, “involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes and—most of all—new identities.”

So, referencing the workshop seating exercise shared in the first paragraph above, I ask you…How fixed are your organization’s chairs? How complicated and large are your group’s dynamics? How rapidly is transitional change expected and is its time-frame realistic? Has leadership been thoughtful enough to consider how employees are coming to terms with the change? How much time has been granted to internalize the new situation that the change brought about and process through those related emotions? And, as I ask this, let me remind you of the wise words of Bridges who states that “changes of any sort—even though they may be justified in economic or technological terms—finally succeed or fail on the basis of whether the people affected do things differently.” Please don’t forget to consider the human element when configuring your organization’s transition plan. Allowing space and time for psychological transition may even be more important than the change itself.

By Kerry Tay McLean, Ombuds Program Administrator
University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office