Make the Transition, Succeed with Change

by Jean Marie Johnson

My family recently moved thirty minutes north. No big deal, right? Well, for starters, the move meant a new house, a new neighborhood, and a new and longer commute. Then there were the day-to-day practical matters: the dry cleaners, the supermarket, the gas station with the best price on super unleaded gas. The list goes on.

As I reflect on the move, I immediately recall that it was the adjustment of our beloved family pet, Madame Butterfly (a 10-year old dog), that most concerned me. After all, she had lived in the same house all of her life, walked the same Main Street each morning, and knew precisely when the mail carrier would drop the day's share of bills, letters and "other" through the mail slot. How in the world would she get on in a brand new, totally unfamiliar environment?

Well, I am delighted to report that Madame is doing splendidly. A few sniffs of the old familiar rugs, identifying the location of her food dish, and the daily buzz of the alarm clock, meant business as usual for Madame Butterfly. I found myself thinking, "Funny how comfortable she seems in her new environment." That led me to reflect on how differently we humans tend to respond to change.

Why do people dread change? I've posed this question to participants in many of my workshops over the years. The answer always comes down to slight variations on the following:

  • Fear of the new
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of loss
  • Comfort with the known, even if it's uncomfortable!
Most humans do not readily embrace change as a good thing. Even when they are the ones initiating it.

What makes change so difficult for us? The work of William Bridges provides some insights. In his book Managing Transitions—Making the Most of Change, Bridges expands our understanding of change by first defining it as something situational. It is the move to a new neighborhood, the new family member coming to live with us, the new job, the new director we will be reporting to...and so on. In Bridges' definition, change is a new stimulus or condition. It is external.

When we focus on the event of change, we risk missing the psychological or emotional process that we experience in relation to that change. This Bridges refers to as transition. Transition is internal. It is the experience we have in response to changes, and it has three phases:

  • Letting go of something
  • The neutral zone
  • The new beginning
Our response to change is effective only when we go through a process of transition that begins with an ending, with letting go of what has been. My move to a new neighborhood meant the need to let go of many familiar things. Certainly I would no longer make the walk to the same coffee shop or stop to say hello to other pre-dawn walkers and joggers along the way.

This first stage is followed by a no-man's land known as the "neutral zone." In this phase, we experience an "emotional wilderness" or limbo. We know intellectually that what has been is no longer, but we have not yet embraced the new. This stage is the heart of the transition process because it includes not only uncertainty, but the beginning seeds of creativity and renewal.

My doubts (and there were many) sounded like: Will I like this new neighborhood? Will I feel at home here? And these doubts coexisted with my hopes, thoughts such as: I may see the sunrise on my early morning walks....

The third stage, the new beginning, occurs when we fully accept and align our minds, hearts and actions with what has changed. It is a psychological state of readiness and an emotional state of acceptance. In time, I began to look with anticipation to the new sights, sounds and people I would come to know.

Eventually, I came to fully appreciate my new environment for its own uniqueness. I came to know the other dog-walkers and started a Saturday morning Breakfast Club; I was truly embracing this new experience.

Unlike Madame Butterfly, people make change a successful experience by going through the stages of transition one by one. Whether the change is personal or organizational, knowing how to lead yourself and support others through the transition process is critical. We needn't fear change when we effectively honor transition!

How much change is your organization or team experiencing? And how are you leading yourself and others through the stages of transition? Stay tuned to our next issue of MAGIC® Service for how organizations effectively engage the human side of change and transition.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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