“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar…
“I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland¹
What have you felt since COVID-19 impacted nearly every corner of our world and every aspect of our lives? Have there been days when you’ve felt a bit like Alice – changing multiple times throughout the day? I know I have.
Over the last couple of months, we have experienced change unlike any other we’ve been exposed to in our lifetime. To successfully navigate through this time as a leader, you must take a step back to recognize and acknowledge the full impact of the changes raining down upon us. Then, choose how you wish to respond and manage the impact on you as well as on your team. In other words, logic and action alone aren’t enough to save the day. We must pay attention to the emotional roller coaster that accompanies all change, particularly the drastic changes we are currently facing.
Bridges’ Transition Model
Many researchers have explored and written about change and its’ effect on people. What they have all discovered are patterns in how we react and respond to change that are quite consistent across the human experience. The model that I have used most extensively with leaders is William Bridges’ 3 Stage Transition Model consisting of Endings – Neutral Zone – New Beginnings.
Change vs Transition
Before we look at each of the stages, let’s make a distinction between change and transition. What tends to create the challenge for us isn’t the change itself but the process of adjusting to it and moving from the old reality to the new. You see, change is external, situational, and often out of our control. In this case, the COVID-19 pandemic is the external change. The internal emotional and psychological process we go through to come to terms with the change is the transition. Consequently, we must turn our attention to the transition process. It is within this process that we will find what we can control – our response.
In Bridge’s model the first phase is Endings. This phase begins with the external event and our realization that the change is really happening. So, think back to when you first learned about COVID-19. Then, consider what occurred when it first hit your country. Then, your local area. Then, perhaps you or someone you know. At what point did you realize that we truly had a pandemic on our hands? When did you find yourself moving from the known to the unknown? This is when your Endings phase began. You likely experienced any number of emotions including denial, anger, fear, anxiety, grief, frustration or depression. Cycling between these emotions is common as well (e.g. anger one moment, fear the next). You may still be experiencing them.
Keep in mind that your colleagues and team members were and are experiencing their own emotions. What can you do to support those around you during this stage and help them to let go of the way things were?
- Acknowledge and validate the emotions that others are experiencing
- Articulate what is actually coming to an end. Determine what might be lost as a result of the change and what might stay the same
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
The Neutral Zone represents the phase of transition where we have started to let go of the old way of being but haven’t yet found our footing in a new reality. Typical emotions that arise during this phase include uncertainty, confusion, overwhelm or frustration. While there is a lack of a solid foundation in this phase, we do begin to experiment with new possibilities. Using our COVID-19 example again, you might find yourself feeling a bit numb, overtired, struggling to get used to working from home, or overwhelmed by suddenly becoming your children’s teacher. Yet, you’re also beginning to realize that what you are feeling is natural – that you are not alone. As you move through this phase, you gain perspective and more effectively cope with uncertainty which allows you to begin to see possibilities for taking positive action.
Everyone moves through this phase at a different pace. Don’t try to rush it. As a leader, you can support others by:
- Continuing to listen and communicate
- Trying new things
- Encouraging the progress that people are making
- Giving yourself and others time to process
The final stage of the model is New Beginnings. This phase is marked by acceptance of the change and a renewed sense of energy that propels action. When we have successfully moved into the New Beginning, we have embraced the new reality and started to experience solid ground again. In our example, our teams will have adjusted to a new way of working, established a new structure to their day, and found a new rhythm. Creative ways of contributing to the team begin to emerge along with new ways of doing business. During this phase, emotions shift in a more positive direction. You might be feeling excitement, optimism, and a greater sense of motivation.
What can you do to support people in this stage?
- Set an intention for how you choose to move forward
- Encourage others to continue taking small steps each day
- Stay focused on solutions versus problems
- Proactively offer and ask for support from others
Viewing transition in terms of William Bridges’ three stages helps you understand that the needs, challenges and opportunities presented by change can be managed as a progression of responses. Your ability to understand this and apply it to yourself as well as to help your team transition during change will go a long way to making any type of change you deal with less daunting.
Where are you in the process of change? Where is your team? What might you do today to accept where you and others are in the process and to navigate your way successfully through the massive change we are experiencing?
- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Signet Books, 1960, 47.
Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, 2nd Edition. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.