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Archive for January, 2011

Managing Transitions – Letting Go

Monday, January 24th, 2011

A longtime client has requested some help with managing change.  So, I’m pulling out my most trusted reference: Managing Transitions by William Bridges.  Anytime I support a client with change issues, this book is part of my toolkit.  Bridges makes an argument that I think is key in dealing with change:  “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”  Simply put, change is situational, yet transition is psychological.  It’s critical to manage the psychological part of change, and that’s often the part that is overlooked by leaders.  In the diagram above, Bridges illustrates the three phases of transition:  1.  Ending, Losing, Letting Go, 2.  The Neutral Zone, and 3.  The New Beginning.

As Bridges makes clear in his book, every transition begins with an ending.  There is some form of “letting go” that accompanies a successful transition.  No matter whether the change is positive or negative, change begins with an ending of something.  For example, a new process means letting go of a strong sense of familiarity and feeling of competence with performing daily tasks.  Or, a promotion means changing peer groups and letting go of daily interactions with people who you’ve grown to know and count on.  Personal changes come with transitions as well . . . moving to a new neighborhood or city means letting go of your physicians, neighbors, and a strong sense of community.  Even when changes are good, there is letting go to do.  Leaders must allow time and space for the psychological process of letting go.

It is possible to create an environment where people are able to deal with losses openly, without it turning into the proverbial whine and moan session.  Bridges offers lots of suggestions.  Here are my favorites that through my work with clients have proven to be very effective:

  1. Accept the Reality and Importance of the Subjective Losses.  In other words, everyone deals with loss differently.  What you may consider easy, someone else may consider wildly difficult.  Learn as much as you can about someone’s perception of loss.  It will make it much easier for you to address it.
  2. Don’t Be Surprised at Overreaction.  The key here is to understand that if somone’s reaction to change is stronger than yours, you’re likely to call it an “overreaction”, when in fact it is simply someone’s reaction.  Loss can, however, be incremental.  That is, an initial reaction to change can be layered with another reaction to something else coming down the pike, and so on.  So, what you may view as an overreaction, might actually be reaction “overload”.
  3. Acknowledge the Losses Openly and Sympathetically.  An empathic leader is a powerful leader.  So, bring losses out in the open and make them safe to discuss.  Invite others to share their feelings of loss, and share yours as well.  For example:  “I know these changes are going to pose challenges for all of us.  I’m sorry about that.” Or,  “I’m feeling a bit like a duck out of water myself.  It’s hard to learn a new process.”
  4. Expect and Accept the Signs of Grieving.  People process change differently, but like stages of grief, you’ll likely notice anger, bargaining, anxiety, sadness or confusion.
  5. Give People Information, Again, and Again.  Leaders cannot overcommunicate, especially during times of change.  Even if you don’t have an update, that’s information your team is likely to appreciate.  Keep them informed.
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