Transitions: The Personal Side of Change

Change is constant, and we often don’t acknowledge the difference between personal transition and external change. In this article we work through the personal and human side of change by exploring William Bridges' Transition model.

“Transition is about letting go of the past and taking up new behaviors or ways of thinking. Planned change is about physically moving…Transition lags behind planned change because it is more complex and harder to achieve. Change is situational and can be planned, whereas transition is psychological and less easy to manage.” - William Bridges

Despite the energy and effort we expend in determining how our organizations can best achieve change, we rarely pause to consider the impact change has on individual team members. How individuals approach and adapt to change has a significant impact on whether organizational changes are ultimately a success. Becoming aware of individual strengths and weaknesses during transition can create a powerful synergy to help propel change forward at the group level.

We often conflate external environmental shifts and our team’s needs with the corresponding personal transition and adjustment process. The difference between personal transition and external change is distinct and important. 

  • Change is external; transition is psychological. 
  • Change can be imposed from the outside; we control our individual response and approach to change.
  • Change, and how we deal with it, varies.

Transitions link the past and the future, and are critical vehicles for growth and transformation. Teams are made up of individuals, each with their own attitudes and behaviors, and it is those individuals who execute change.

William Bridges' Transition Model: The Three Phases of Transition

Phase I – Endings

You come to terms with the fact that you are leaving the past behind. You are confronted with tangible and intangible losses. For some, change is disorienting and produces anxiety, denial, or anger. Others feel eager to leave the past behind. Emotions can be balanced by the anticipation of improvements on the way.

Helpful Tips during Phase I:

  • Gain as much information as you can about the change.
  • Consider what is at the root of the change, and how it will allow you to keep what really matters.
  • Identify what is continuous. Although things may feel tumultuous, not everything is changing.
  • Compensate for loss to balance what was taken away.
  • Honor “what was” –i.e., past challenges and achievements.
  • Consider what has worked for you in the past and how you maintained energy, creativity, and focus through change.
  • If you have a personality type that gravitates to routine and predictability, create structure for yourself around the change process.
Phase 2 – Neutral Zone

The past is gone, and an ordered and predictable future has not yet arrived to replace it. It is in this in-between state where critical psychological realignment takes place.

For some, the neutral zone is difficult because what is familiar and safe is left behind. Anxiety can be high, productivity low, and weaknesses may rise to the surface. Others maybe relieved to have completed the letting go process and relish the ambiguity and slower pace of work that often accompanies this stage. Although the neutral zone may feel like a risky place, there is opportunity because of the space for innovation.

Helpful Tips during Phase 2:

  •  Don’t lose the opportunity for creative innovation by rushing through this stage. Consider what would be helpful to navigate this space.
  • Remember that this is temporary, as is much of the associated discomfort and ambiguity. Structures and systems to deal with the change will emerge with patience and effort.
  • Develop short-term goals to keep yourself productive and focused.
  • Be gentle with yourself and understand that productivity may not be as high as at other times.
  • Create temporary support systems.
  • Recognize that it’s okay to feel confused and afraid.
  • If you have a personality type that thrives on ambiguity, remain sensitive to the difficulties others may be having adapting.
Phase 3 – The Beginning

You accept the reality of the change and identify with the new paradigm. This stage is often marked by a new professional identity, energy, and purpose. Transformation in this stage becomes palpable as the anticipated change finally becomes real.

Some feel relieved to be finished with the uncertainty in the neutral zone, and eager to settle into the new routine. Others mourn the loss of possibility and seek comfort in the fact that additional changes will inevitably be around the corner. As new replaces old, it is common for the excitement and anxiety experienced during the first phase to resurface.

Helpful Tips during Phase 3:

  • Visualize the change you desire.
  • Consider your specific role and how you can concretely contribute toward living change.
  • Continue to share your concerns and problems with co-workers.

Continue exploring William Bridges' transition model.