When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs. —William and Susan Bridges, Managing Transitions
The business world is in constant flux, and companies must change to survive. Great leaders expect change as a healthy part of an organization’s evolution. But not everyone in the organization will experience change the same way.
Companies often underestimate that change is not just a mechanical process but also an intensely personal one. For change to occur, tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people must simultaneously let go of an old way of doing things and shift to a new way. What’s more, they are expected to arrive at the same preconceived outcome at the same time.
The sheer magnitude of that challenge is why change management is an ongoing struggle for leaders (and organizations) worldwide.
The leader’s role in managing change is to manage the psychological dynamic of those going through the change to get them to the other side of it. This constitutes the most significant step in the change process: the transition. And the success of any change depends on it.
So, today I’m going to dive into how leaders can most effectively navigate the transition process.
What is the transition?
The transition is the space between making a change and accepting it. The transition is uncomfortable for people experiencing change, mainly because of uncertainty. They are waiting to understand what the change is and how it will affect them. They’re asking questions like:
- Is there actually a problem that must be solved? (In other words, ‘why are we doing this?’)
- Does this change solve the problem, or are we simply moving deck chairs around?
- Can I be successful in this new vision?
In their book Managing Transitions, business consultants William and Susan Bridges explain that this ‘Neutral Zone’ between the old and new ways of doing things is, ideally, where leaders put most of their energy. In the transition, leaders are problem-solving for how best to help employees emotionally and psychologically come to terms with change.
In essence, the role of the leader at this stage is two-fold: 1) helping people become comfortable with the new vision and 2) helping people see how they can be successful in the new vision.
Here, I’ve expanded on William and Susan Bridges’ advice to articulate the 7 steps leaders must take to manage people through transitions effectively.
Step 1: Be clear about the goals of the change.
What is the company trying to achieve? What are the benefits of these changes? Make sure that everyone is aware of the goals and the expected outcomes. People will need to hear this reinforced multiple times before they fully absorb it.
Step 2: Acknowledge the impact of the change.
Explain how employees can expect the change to impact them and the business as the transition is happening. One of the leader’s most important roles at this time is articulating what it’s time to leave behind. Importantly, this demonstrates that they haven’t taken people for granted, and that they understand the loss that is taking place.
Step 3: Expect different reactions.
Not everyone will react to change the same way. Some may embrace it, while others may resist. It is important to manage both types of reactions in a constructive way. Those who embrace change should be encouraged and supported, while those who resist will need to be coaxed along differently. (Remember, resistance is often a sign that an employee cares about their work.)
Step 4: Give people the information they need to process what is happening.
Don’t assume you can anticipate all the information that’s needed. Get feedback from your team and see what they think about the proposed changes. If there are any concerns, address them head-on.
Step 5: Be clear about what is changing and what is not.
Making this distinction is critical to give people the context they need to visualize the mechanics of the change, to break it into less intimidating pieces, and understand what they are expected to adjust and what they are not.
Step 6: Be clear on the milestones.
Milestones hold organizational leaders accountable for tracking and communicating progress, but they also let people know where they are in the transition process. Communicate when milestones are reached, and celebrate them to continue building momentum and excitement around progress.
Step 7: Be available to help.
Make yourself more available to answer questions or address any concerns employees may have. Let them know that you are there to support them through the transition and try to set up a time to connect with each person one-on-one.
For change to work, leaders must be prepared to guide people effectively through the transition. This requires reinforcing the fact that the change has a purpose, that the company has a plan, and that each person has a meaningful part to play both now and in the company’s new vision.
It’s a balancing act but also an opportunity for individuals—not just the organization—to grow and improve. With every successful transition, employees will be better equipped to handle future challenges.
As a leadership coach, I’m passionate about helping individuals and organizations navigate change with clarity and confidence.
Schedule a free consultation to explore how tailored coaching could support your leadership development journey.
Managing Transitions by William and Susan Bridges (book)
This resource provides practical tools and a core framework to help leaders understand and manage the transitional period that comes with any organizational change. It includes specific leadership actions, checklists, and steps to facilitate the transition process.