Change is Hard! How to Make It Easier for Everyone
We all deal with changes in different ways. What significantly affects one person is no big deal to another. The same event has various impacts on different people. For example, someone leaving a job will be thrilled at the new opportunities coming, while a co-worker is devastated to lose a fantastic colleague. At an organization with a new executive director starting, one of her program managers could be excited at the chance to work with someone new, while another manager is afraid of someone coming in and demanding to run programs in a new way.
Change is especially evident when an executive director leaves their position. This transition will affect everyone’s work load and level of comfort, but often people expect that a change is affecting others the same way as it does them. I often see this when a board has known about an upcoming departure for a month or longer, and staff don’t. When the staff are told, board members expect them to be ready to move on to the next step right away, forgetting that they also needed time to process this change.
William Bridges, in his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, provides a good framework for thinking about change and how we can manage transitions better. We often want to get through a change quickly and move on, but Bridges explains why that doesn’t lead to the best results. If we take the time to plan for a good transition, the results will be much better for everyone involved.
Change is an external event that happens. A change in jobs, a move to a new home, the birth of a child. You can usually define when the change happened. The transition related to that change is what takes time. The transition is internal, as we process through the change and what it means for us. It’s a psychological process of accepting the change, considering the opportunities, and then welcoming the new situation.
There are three premises to the model that Bridges presents. First, there can’t be a beginning until there is an ending. Something has to change, and that change has to be processed internally, before the new thing can happen. Second, there’s a neutral zone between the ending and the beginning, and it is important to give it time, but not too much time. Finally, we all go through transitions at varying speeds and need to recognize this in each other.
Every transition starts with an ending. What are you losing? What will you keep? It is important to take the time to communicate in the ending stage, especially to encourage people to talk about their feelings. There can be feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and uncertainty about a big change. If those feelings aren’t expressed, they can linger, and make the new beginning a struggle. It’s important to think about how to communicate a change. You won’t be able to give out all the details, but keeping everyone in the loop as much as possible is critical for helping them feel comfortable with the change. You should also think about how to create a good ending. What rituals and events will make it easier to end this stage. A going away party? A chance for a discussion about what working together has meant to each person?
After the ending, there needs to be time for a neutral zone. This is the in between time, when you are beginning to create new processes, but don’t know what they will be yet. It doesn’t yet feel comfortable. Confusion, uncertainty, and impatience characterize the neutral zone. Everyone has anxiety about their new role or identity as it relates to the change. Remind them of the organizational goals to help them stay grounded. The neutral zone can also can be time of great creativity, and encourage new ways of thinking. It’s a time for brainstorming and bringing up ideas that have been percolating. Setting some short term goals in the neutral zone will allow for quick wins, and help everyone feel like progress is being made. When an executive director resigns, it is important for the board to spend time here before starting hiring process. They can take stock of current situation, and then explore new opportunities, or ways to make a better impact. What is best for the organization long term? Should it continue as it has been, or should it change in some way? Again, communication is key for helping everyone move through this stage.
For some organizations, having an interim executive director during the neutral zone is important. When a long term leader, or an unsuccessful leader leaves, everyone needs time to process the past and their hopes for the future. An interim director will be a steward of the organization and the transition process. They can provide leadership and allow the board the time to conduct a quality search and hiring process. They can make small improvements in the organization’s structure and operations that will benefit everyone. Finally, they can help everyone discuss their emotions and concerns so that board and staff are ready to welcome the new executive director.
The final stage is the beginning. People have accepted the change and are ready to move forward. They are seeing the impact of the small changes they’ve already made. There’s excitement about the future and new possibilities. People are open to learning and new ideas. When the new executive director starts, staff are ready for fresh ideas and improvements.
It is important to remember, that even if the change has happened and most people are at the beginning stage, not everyone is. Checking in with individuals and helping them continue to process the transition is still beneficial, rather than assuming they are ready.
Take some time to create a good pathway for change and the results will be worth that investment.