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Any kind of change is hard. Whether the change is perceived as positive or negative, it can be a very emotional experience. Indeed, there is a lot of emotion around change. But understanding the feelings associated with change can help your employees manage the inevitable ups and downs. It’s also helpful to consider the transition’s “4 Ps”: Purpose, Picture, Plan and Part with respect to the emotion around change. We like to credit where credit is due, therefore, we’ve adapted the following information from Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, PhD, and Susan Bridges.

Emotion around change: Three phases of the transition process

First, let’s distinguish between change and transition. Change itself is situational. It’s a move to a new location or a company reorganization. Transition is psychological—a three-phase emotional process that employees go through as they internalize and eventually come to terms with the new way of doing business. It’s critical to help employees through each phase of the emotional transition process for a change to work as planned.

Phase 1: Letting Go

When employees must first let go of the old ways and the old identity. This is the “ending,” and a time when employees may need the most help dealing with loss.

Phase 2: The Neutral Zone

When the old is gone but the new is not yet fully operational and may not feel comfortable. This is the in-between time, when employees are more likely to give up on embracing the change and possibly leave the company. Much support should be offered during this time.

Phase 3: A New Beginning

When employees develop their new company identity, experience new energy and realize a new sense of purpose that makes the change work.

Helping employees let go of the current state

In the first phase, letting go, employees must end their expectations of what used to be and let go of an old company identity. This is difficult because people, by nature, do not like endings. They resist the change because it may be perceived as a loss. It’s best to deal with these emotions directly. This is when the PURPOSE behind the expected outcome should be explained. People need to understand the logic of the plan before it’ll be accepted.

  • Identify who’s actually losing what. Remember that losses are not always concrete. The “way things are” is what makes us feel at home in our environment. Respect the employees’ reality of the perceived loss.
  • Be candid. Describe the change and what to expect in as much detail as possible.
  • Don’t be surprised by overreaction.
  • Provide information about the change, and do this consistently and repeatedly.
  • Define what’s ending and what’s not. Eliminate confusion. Can anything be done that will compensate for what has been removed?
  • Show how the ending will ensure the continuity of the company’s success.
  • Expect and accept the signs of grieving—a natural sequence of emotions that people go through when they lose something.

Getting through the neutral zone

In the second phase, the neutral zone, everything is in flux. Employees are caught between “what was” and “what will be.” Tensions and frustrations may increase because nothing is predictable and anything could happen. Unsure employees try to find their place in the changing environment but need guidance and structure to do so. In fact, the neutral zone is fraught with potential dangers.

  • Anxiety rises and motivation falls. Employees may feel resentful and unsettled.
  • Old issues that had previously been addressed may reappear, and may be harder to resolve again.
  • Employees miss more work during this time-period, which leads to lower productivity and can trigger an increase in medical and disability claims.
  • Teamwork and loyalty to the company may break down and turnover rates may increase.
  • Employees can feel overwhelmed by mixed signals. Priorities may get confused, information can be miscommunicated and tasks may be overlooked.

Managing the neutral zone is essential to ensure your organization stays intact as it bridges the gap between the old and the new way. The neutral zone can also intensify creativity, as employees may be more willing to take chances and try new ideas. This is a good time to paint a PICTURE of how the outcome will look and feel, so employees can begin to imagine themselves as part of it. 

You’ll also want to explain the step-by-step PLAN for phasing-in the outcome. Employees need to see how they’ll achieve the desired result. It’s important for leaders to consider multiple approaches when helping employees through this phase.

  • Allow employees time to continue to grieve. Acceptance will help shape the future of the organization. This is also when reorienting and redefinition happens.
  • Minimize additional disruptions to allow employees time to regain their footing.
  • Review policies and procedures to ensure they adequately cover potential issues.
  • Consider developing new roles and explaining reporting structures clearly.
  • Set short-range goals that lead to long-term outcomes. This provides a sense of achievement and movement.
  • Strengthen intragroup connections to help rebuild a sense of identity and solidarity.
  • Communicate regularly via newsletters to maintain contact, give structure and show support.
  • Encourage employees to consider ways they’ll emerge from the neutral zone better than before the transition started.

Launching a new beginning

Strong leadership in the neutral zone phase will help employees point their energy in new directions in the third phase, a new beginning. By this point, employees should be ready to make the emotional commitment to doing things a different way. Their outlook about the company values and goals can help solidify the new corporate identity.

Leaders should capitalize on this energy, because although a new beginning is exciting, it can also be somewhat scary due to its requirement of a renewed commitment. Give each employee a PART to play in both the plan and the outcome, which is a tangible way to contribute and participate. It’s also important to consistently reinforce the messages that were delivered during the neutral zone phase. In addition:

  • Ensure quick successes: Assign small tasks to help repair damaged self-esteem from the previous period of uncertainty.
  • Symbolize the new identity: To suggest that employees hold a piece of the future, share a small giveaway that’s different from what you might have given or shared in the past.
  • Celebrate the successes as a team: Take time to celebrate and officially mark the new beginning by doing something fun that breaks from routine.

Summary

By keeping these points in mind and putting yourself in employees’ place, efficiently leading a team through transition can be a matter of viewing the change through a multi-faceted lens. That’s not to say that everything will go as planned, but understanding the underlying factors and motivators can help to restore confidence in the organization and get you through the transition more successfully.

Have your internal teams been going through a significant change? What’s the main thing you’ve observed or learned? We’d love to hear from you!