Change is constant in any organization, and PEPFAR teams are no exception. Old colleagues leave a country for their next assignment, and new teammates enter. Washington issues updated policy guidance, and local regulations and policies are updated.
We often respond, appropriately, by discussing the impact change has at a group-level. We create new structures to increase local ownership, and brainstorm how to alter programs to deal with the directives of an incoming political regime. We construct vivid fantasies about how we, and our leaders, could better manage organizational change to achieve our mission.
Group Change vs. Personal Transition
While country teams work hard to rethink programs and implement new approaches, it’s easy to conflate external environmental shifts with the corresponding personal transitions that must accompany such change. While focusing on the group’s needs, in other words, we ignore the need to address our own internal adjustment processes that help us to keep pace with new organizational mandates.
Yet 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, but we control our individual responses and approaches to change. Change – and how we deal with it – are different.
Membership in the TWG might shift by decree overnight, but the affects of dealing with the change can be far more nuanced. And potentially just as powerful. In fact, transitions act as the link between the past and the future, and can be 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 must execute change. According to noted change expert William Bridges, the high failure rate of change within groups can often be traced to individual members’ inabilities to make psychological adjustments. His point is clear: individual transitions have great power to positively impact not only our ability to function as effective team members, but also our personal and professional lives. By knowing and understanding ourselves, we become more empowered individuals.
Bridge’s three-phase process for coming to terms with a new situation is described below.
Phase I – The End
The first phase of any transition is for individuals to come to terms with the fact that they are leaving the past behind. Take the example of a new Minister of Health. While his predecessor may have been eager to be involved in PEPFAR decision making, the new minister may be wary about USG involvement in local initiatives and guard essential information. As a result, a PEPFAR team member who once enjoyed a close relationship with a key government official may need to build a different kind of relationship with that official’s replacement, thereby letting go of her identity as the government’s “go-to” expat.
During this first phase, individuals are confronted with losses both tangible and intangible, and it’s natural for some people to be in denial, or feel anger or disorientation. Change, by definition, is disorienting and can produce anxiety. But it is also natural to feel eager to leave the past behind and to relish impending progress. New management structures are often proposed, for instance, because team members know that they will lead to increased interagency collaboration. The anxiety associated with changing that structure, therefore, can be balanced by the positive anticipation that comes from knowing that improvements are on the way.
Tips that may be helpful during Phase I:
- Gain as much information as you can about the change.
- Consider what is at the root of the change, and how the change will allow you to keep what really matters.
- Identify what is continuous, especially if this stage is difficult for you. Although things may feel tumultuous, not everything is changing. For instance, mission often remains the same.
- Compensate for loss to balance what was taken away.
- Honor “what was” – i.e., past challenges and achievements.
Phase II – The Neutral Zone
Envision a trapeze artist who has let go of her first swing, but not yet caught her second. Midair, she exists momentarily suspended between the past and the future. Perhaps this stage of the act is exciting for her; possibility coexists with risk. Perhaps she’s eager for the moment to be over, and waits only to feel her grip firmly on her partner’s hands. Perhaps a bit of both.
Phase II begins here: when 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 they have left behind what is familiar and safe. Anxiety can be high, productivity low, and weaknesses may rise to the surface. Others may be 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, opportunity abounds in this phase because of the space created for innovation. Consider a Washington-initiated directive regarding a shift from emergency HIV/AIDS relief services to local country ownership. In the neutral phase, complete USG direction over programming may no longer exist, despite the fact that the structures and relationships necessary for local ownership have not yet been established. Such disorder is necessarily confusing, but it can also allow for the details of the mandated change to be worked out in new and creative ways.
The chaos of the neutral phase is temporary. Just as an acrobat’s preparation and training tell her that the next swing will be a mere pause and a reach away, accumulated skills and experiences can help individual PEPFAR members to accept that what comes next will come – eventually. Incoming team members will get up to speed on the nuances of HIV prevention in a new cultural context; implementing partners will adjust to the new technical directions and priorities of a modified project. The self-awareness and understanding that each team member has acquired as a result of past experiences can provide reassurance that the neutral zone will end and that the change will take hold soon.
Tips that may be helpful during Phase II:
- Don’t compromise the change or lose the opportunity for creative innovation by rushing through this stage. Consider instead what would be helpful in navigating in this no-man’s land.
- Remember that this stage 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; don’t try to force them.
- Develop short-term goals to keep yourself productive and focused.
- Create temporary support systems.
- Recognize that it’s okay to feel confused and afraid during this stage.
- Be gentle with yourself, and understand that productivity may not be as high during this stage as at other times.
Phase III – The Beginning
The final stage of Bridge’s model for personal transition occurs at the beginning – when the individual accepts the reality of change, and identifies with the new paradigm. This stage occurs when the old agency head has left, the new director is in place, and her leadership style has been integrated into the team’s operational patterns.
Often marked by a new professional identity, energy, and purpose, transformation in this stage becomes palpable as the anticipated change finally becomes real. The new management structures outlined by the director are no longer just theoretical, for instance; they are active decision making bodies with purpose and responsibility.
At this point, many individuals feel relieved to be finished with what had been a disturbing sense of uncertainty in the neutral zone, and are eager to settle into the new routine that change can provide. Others mourn the loss of possibility, but seek comfort in the fact that additional changes will inevitably be just around the corner – and that the time to perfect details of the change has arrived. As new replaces old, it is also common for the excitement and anxiety that individuals experience during the first phase to resurface. All of these reactions are natural and normal, and should be accepted as integral to the transition process.
Tips that may be helpful during Phase III:
- 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.
A primary focus of many country teams is to rethink priorities, determine new approaches, and implement new processes. Yet 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 or not our organizational changes are ultimately a success.
Being aware of this distinction between group change and individual transition is key to every level of an organization, from the PEPFAR team leaders on down. Like other teams, PEPFAR teams are made of individuals, each with personal experiences and attitudes. Those characteristics can have tremendous impact on a group’s professional development as a whole. The good news is that behaviors and attitudes tend to be contagious, especially for those managing change from a visible or leadership position. Becoming aware of one’s individual strengths and weaknesses during transition, while remaining sensitive to differing transition, while remaining sensitive to differing transition styles of surrounding team members, can create a powerful synergy to help propel change forward at the group level.
Personality Type and Change
Different personality types have different responses to change. Some types tend to embrace newness, while others ignore it and hope the change will “go away.” Still other types require greater reflection and adjustment during times of transition.
- Consider what has best worked for you in the past. How have you maintained energy, creativity, and focus, for instance, when a new team member has come on board or a decision-making structure has been altered? Recognizing your own emotions, tendencies, and assumptions can have a powerful impact on your ability to understand and deal with change.
- During times of transition, personality types that tend to gravitate toward routine, process, and predictability may need to create structures for themselves to maintain stability. Gaining clarity about the scope and timeline of a change can be particularly helpful.
- Conversely, personality types that thrive on ambiguity and renewal must remain sensitive to the difficulties that others may be having in adapting to the change. Regular communication with teammates about short-term tasks and objectives and may help to ward off potential misunderstandings about what each member is doing and why.
- To learn more about your personality type and how it typically reacts to change, see Myers-Briggs.
Managing Transitions, Making the Most of Change, William Bridges, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2009.
Managing Personal Change, Third Edition: Stay Positive and Stay in Control (Crisp Fifty Minute Series), Cynthia Scott, Crisp Publications, 2010.
Leading Transformational Change: A Framework for PEPFAR Teams, TeamSTAR Tips & Tools for PEPFAR Teams.
This resource is a part of a series of articles created under the USAID-funded AIDSTAR project. The principles in these resources can be widely applied to a variety of contexts where different groups work together closely on a shared initiative or different teams within an organization need to work together more effectively.