Managers typically focus on change management – getting to the end physical state as quickly as possible. In the process, they leave their employees behind.
We have well-established practices for making the physical change – clarifying scope and boundary, identifying stakeholders, planning the stages and milestones, evaluating progress and implementing the changes.
What managers fail to understand, and act on, is the nature of the personal transitions that individual employees experience during the change process.
William Bridges identified three phases of personal transition:
1. Ending phase
2. Neutral phase
3. Beginnings phase
The endings phase is when people typically focus on the loss entailed in a change process. Here, they may experience an intense sense of loss in relation to their role, status, relationships, location or past achievements. If people are not assisted in the process of moving beyond the endings phase they can become depressed, disruptive and even ill.
The neutral phase is a “middle earth” between endings and new beginnings. Employees have not yet “let go of the past” nor “embraced the future”. This is a disorienting period because the old has not yet gone and the new is unclear. Individuals tend to lose their bearings at this point. The old anchors have gone and new anchors have not been put in place. Typically employees will “wait and see” what happens, sometimes hoping that the change will go away. This is a period of inertia and loss of productivity.
The beginning phase is when an employee “gets on board”. This is when the employee can see a way ahead and their role in it, they become excited by the possibilities of the new environment and commit to contributing to the new processes.
Each person, including the manager themselves, go through these personal transition phases during any change activity that impacts on their lives, whether business, home or social change.
What managers need to be aware of is that each person makes these transitions at different rates. The one employee can also transition at a different rate in different situations.
Managers need to develop strategies to help employees move through these phases, to acknowledge that the feelings associated with each phase are normal and legitimate and help them transition.
Challenge question: What transition phase are you in personally in relation to your own organizational changes? What are you doing to help your employees make the personal transitions demanded by organizational change?