Transitions & Healthy Change

In my work I am endeavouring to have people thrive rather than just survive their work and their lives. We talk a lot these days about constant change and somewhat less about how we might view change and live change in healthy ways that encourage good living.

The model that I use to have people make sense of what is happening for them is based on William Bridges work around change and transition. He and other consultants like John Kotter state that change requires not only the physical external change of say a workplace or way a team works but also an internal, or emotional, transition that allows us to integrate the changes into how we live and work.

A more simple example might be when we shift house it is rare to feel at ‘home’ until sometime after the move in date. A whole range of things have to happen for each of us to feel at home and this will vary from person to person. This ’range of things’ is the transition if you like. If we fail to make the transition we may never feel at home.

Certainly my experience over the years, both personally and professionally would support this.

After looking at change more generally I will have people talk with me about “what is going on” for them right now at work. Usually I have been called in because change is happening or just been announced. I am interested to hear people’s emotional response, their practical concerns and questions, anything they might be looking forward to from the changes. In fact anything at all they are thinking about the whole situation. Out of this conversation I map their responses under three key headings based on the transition model of Bridges.

In Bridges transition model all change begins with an (1) ending, progresses through the (2) neutral zone and ideally achieves resolution with a (3) beginning or the assessment of opportunity in the change.

In the first instance we all take change deeply personally – what is going to happen for me? Then we start to look at the ripple effects of the changes for others around us. These may be our work mates, customers, anyone we assess will be impacted by the change. My initial goal is to validate everyone’s current experience of the change – we cannot be in any other emotional experience than the one we currently find ourselves in. Understanding where we are we can then reflect on whether this response is going to support thriving or struggling.

So we talk about what is ending for people when a change is chosen or imposed in the domain of work. Some examples of things that come up as ending are, knowing what to do, particular relationships or friendships, job security, current childcare arrangements etc. We talk about ‘letting go’ of ways of thinking and acting that will no longer be possible.

The neutral zone is hardly neutral. Anyone who has had to double clutch through neutral in an old vehicle will know that in neutral you have the least control of that vehicle. This can be the sense of the neutral zone. Change throws us into a time full of questions, concerns, fears (real and imagined). Change can also throw us into a time of inquiry and excitement and teasing out the possibilities that may come out of this change. Either way it is often an energetic phase unless we find ourselves caught in depression or resignation. Being as involved as we can is a key strategy here, being and feeling part of the change even if we didn’t choose it. It is useful in this phase to get clear about the questions and concerns we have and get answers to them. Even if we do not like the answers we can still plan our future based on knowing rather than not knowing. And of course when so much may be up for grabs the neutral zone can be the perfect time to do something quite different, or something that just quietly you have been thinking about for a while. For example one review I was part of, the choices that people explored out of the neutral zone included: early retirement and being a ‘grandma’, shifting departments for a gear up in career, doing further training to be able to work at a different level from the current job. The most painful experience was for people who were just waiting for the change either not to happen or to just be told what to do – and wondering what this would look like.

In neutral we are not where we were in time and knowing and we are not where we will end up. We can’t be – this takes a certain period of time. So we need to take care of our basic human needs. Never underestimate the role of good food, good sleep, good exercise, good friends and family connections and of course being willing to ask for help.

Ideally during this transition conversation we can begin to speak of the possibilities of the beginning – or the opportunities that may arise from the change. However sometimes we cannot in that instant see any possibility for ourselves out of the change. This area of beginnings is often easier to speak to in hindsight, when we have lived into and realised the opportunities we could only guess at when they arose. So for example when my job was disestablished a few years ago it felt terrible. Lots of things ended including feeling wanted in the work place. What was I to do next? How would I support my family etc? I took some time to really think through my options – stay in the field, retrain, what to do? Several years down the track I know that this was a fabulous opportunity for me. I am doing work that is much more suitable and enjoyable.

I have written this article based on conversations in the work place. All of the conversation of transitions and healthy change is equally applicable to the rest of our lives. One young man in another work session commented at the end when we had filled the whiteboard with all the endings, neutral and beginning aspects of his work place, “S…, Kerry-Ann, you’ve just put my whole life up on the board!” He could see where his flat, friendships etc were in different stages of the transition model.

Being able to identify each stage of a change lessens our sense of not coping, of being overwhelmed or powerless to affect our experience of change. It means we can plan our completions or good byes, ask questions or clarify our concerns and our possibilities of the neutral zone and begin to live into our assessed opportunities of the new beginnings.

In short, an ongoing powerful tool for a world where the only constant is change.