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How to Transition Through Change

change and transition in the workplace - center for creative leadership

When Faced With Change, Focus on the Transition

Do you feel that your organization is awash in change? Do you have a hard time keeping up with the shifting demands you face as a leader? You’re not alone. Unrelenting change is becoming the norm. Leaders have no choice but to adapt and to help others to adapt, too.

Organizational events such as restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, or financial problems force leaders to rethink their work and adapt to a changing workforce. Pressure to achieve results and to satisfy what are often competing demands builds the intensity. External factors — the economy, industry and market trends, globalization, political and social concerns, and rapid technological changes — all conspire to make leadership a complex, difficult undertaking.

Yet as we’ve all heard, “Change is the only constant in life.” And we know that to be resilient, both personally and professionally, we have to face change head on and get to the other side.

Effective leaders understand that successful change and transition requires more than just coping with change — and that the goal is not to “get by.” These leaders accept that change is happening; they hone strategies for dealing with the unknown; and they shift their behavior to accommodate new situations and challenges.

What’s the Difference Between Change & Transition?

To manage change, first understand that there’s a difference between change and transition.

  • Change is defined as the situations and occurrences that impact organizations and individuals. Change creates the need to move from the way things used to be to the way they are now, such as a new boss, a move to a work-from-home environment, or a shift in policy. Adapting to change requires flexibility.
  • Transition is the internal psychological process of adapting to a new situation. Transition can happen quickly or slowly. It’s the process of moving successfully from the old to the new. Here are our tips for navigating the 3 stages of transition.

Tips for Navigating the 3 Stages of Transition

Transition involves 3 stages: an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning, according to William Bridges, a leader in the field of change management.

Stage 1 of Transition: Accept the Ending

Let go of the past; honor and grieve the ending, but accept it. To fully experience change as an ending, try these 3 strategies:

  • Admit to yourself and others that the change has occurred. Leading change by example requires honesty and authenticity.
  • Actively seek information from all relevant sources. Learn more about the nature of the change without first judging it.
  • Take note of what’s been lost and what’s been gained. Take the view that different isn’t right or wrong. It’s just different.

Stage 2 of Transition: Live in the Neutral Zone

This may be the most uncomfortable transition stage. This is the time of confusion, of living with a clear ending but having no clear beginning. It’s also the time for clarity to develop and point you to a new beginning. Try these 4 strategies as you navigate the neutral zone:

  • Realize that uncertainty is an integral stage between an ending and a new beginning. Don’t expect to know everything or to be perfect.
  • Set short-term goals to move through uncertainty. As you advance toward a new beginning, take stock of what you need to accomplish those goals and identify opportunities that will help you move forward.
  • Look backward to the ending and acknowledge what you had. Look forward to the beginning and the possibilities it could create.
  • Connect to your values. When you feel uncertain and confused, your personal values will provide direction.

Stage 3 of Transition: Reach Your New Beginning

Utilize the clarity that developed in the neutral zone and accept the challenge of working in a changed environment. Think of this phase as a fresh start. Try these 3 strategies as you settle into your new beginning:

  • Jump right in to meet new people. As you learn the ropes, give all relevant parties a place in the new beginning.
  • Create strategies for tackling new problems. When you meet new challenges, re-emphasize the reason for the change and recognize that reason as why you’re beginning anew.
  • Find ways to mark your success. Acknowledge small wins.

People experience organizational change in many different ways, and the process of transition will vary. As a leader, you must deal with your own personal uncertainty and resistance to change. Recognize that your process of going through endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings will affect your work and the people around you.

Leading the Human Side of Change and Transition

Rapid change and constant transition have created a more emotional dynamic in organizations.

Uncertainty can trigger all kinds of behavioral and emotional reactions from leaders and the people who are affected by the decisions of leadership. Faced with a never-ending onslaught of organizational change, those you lead may experience change fatigue, so work to equip them with change resilience.

The complexity and intensity of transition is a reaction to change — and the more frequent or more dramatic the change, the more complex the process of transition. Yet, organizations and leaders commonly overlook or dismiss the human side of change.

As noted in our book Leading With Authenticity in Times of Transition, many managers have mastered the structural side of leading change — creating a vision, reorganizing, restructuring, and so on. They’re rewarded, evaluated, and educated to deal with the structural issues around implementing change, and so have more experience with that side of the issue.

But the stresses and pressures generated by structural or operational change lead to an increased need to pay attention to what’s going on with the people in the organization.

Research shows that 75% of change initiatives fail. Why? Managing change successfully requires leaders to deal effectively with both the structural side of leading change and the human dynamic of transition.

When the skills associated with either side are overplayed, leaders destabilize the organizational culture by eroding trust. Instead of a loyal, productive, and enthusiastic workforce, executives and managers end up leading employees who are insecure, fearful, and skeptical. By failing to gain sufficient buy-in from employees, leaders slow down and undermine their progress toward new goals.

When leaders ignore or minimize the people side of managing change, perfectly good strategies and change initiatives stall or fail.

Our research has found that leading transition involves guiding people though a process of grieving, letting go, building hope, and learning. In many ways, the bigger challenge for leaders is to manage the longer-term, human aspects of change: recovery, revitalization, and recommitment. These are required to become a more successful change leader.

With greater awareness of the human side of transitioning through change, you and your organization will be become more change-capable and able to move through change with grace.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Build your team’s capacity to adapt to change and transition more effectively with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Communication, Conflict Management, Emotional Intelligence, Leading Through Change & Disruption, Listening to Understand, Resilience-Building, and more.

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November 16, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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