After Change: How to Make Sure Your Transition Sticks

A man with glasses and a suit jacket.

Posted by Kevin Miller

Watch a video of this entire series in my Managing IT:  Organizational Change Management course on Pluralsight.

This blog post was published on the Built In platform on April 19, 2022.

Now that you’ve learned about all eight stages of the emotional change curve, we’ll break the curve down into three distinct phases — which were originally conceptualized in the Transition Model by William Bridges, one of the foremost authorities on how modern organizations think about and navigate change.

The Bridges Transition Model’s 3 Phases

  • Endings
  • The Neutral Zone
  • New Beginnings

Phase 1: Endings

The beginning of a change starts with a person leaving the old way of doing things behind. This can occur at different times for different people — but only once they leave the denial stage.

When people are in the ending phase, treat them with respect, show empathy and sympathize with the grief people are going through. Provide information and define what is over and what is not.

It’s also important to acknowledge and celebrate what made the old way work while looking ahead for what’s to come.

Emotions people will experience during the endings phase:

  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Disorientation
  • Depression

Phase 2: The Neutral Zone

This is a place of confusion and pain for the person going through a change, and it can also be a place of opportunity, as people tend to be more innovative and find new ways of doing things. If the old way of doing things compensated for a weakness, that compensation is now gone, so that weakness will resurface. In other words, if productivity was bad before, it gets worse in the neutral zone.

Provide temporary support systems and short-term goals in this phase and relate the new ways of doing things using the old way’s language to help orient people with something familiar. Be careful not to let outdated terms stick around for too long.

Emotions people will experience in the neutral zone:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Decreased motivation
  • Resentment
  • Self-protection

Phase 3: New Beginnings

The new-beginnings phase is when the personal, psychological, and behavioral changes take effect, which comes after they’ve already started going through the new motions.

This is the promised land, but don’t rest yet, because your job as a change leader is not done. To keep people in the new beginnings phase, you need to provide clear roles and responsibilities, score some quick wins with your new way of doing things and celebrate success. Tell and show people you’re proud of them and reinforce your commitment to retaining the change.

Emotions people experience in the new-beginnings phase:

  • Increased energy
  • Sense of purpose
  • Enthusiasm

Here’s a Tip!

It’s important to ensure people do not feel as if they are being told their way of doing things was wrong. Instead, acknowledge that the old way of doing things was right for the time — and now there is a different way going forward.

Transition does not require that you reject or deny the importance of your old life, just that you let go of it.“ — William Bridges

Putting It into Practice

Think about the various rites of passage people experience throughout a lifetime and the three phases of transition for each.

Marriage consists of two people letting go of their single lives, entering a newlywed phase together and then becoming a married couple. Joining the military consists of leaving civilian life, learning how to be a soldier in bootcamp and possibly being deployed into service. Having children consists of being only responsible for yourself, learning to be responsible for another human being and settling into being a parent. Graduating consists of being a student, an awkward post-graduation phase and finally entering the workforce.

Three phases of transition are all around us. What other changes have you experienced which have three phases? What would happen if you skipped the neutral zone phase in the middle?

The Transitional Process

Everyone going through a major change experiences a transitional process. While this process cannot be avoided, it can be minimized.

The transitional process typically begins with a dip in performance as soon as someone learns about an upcoming change. This can occur following an official announcement of a change, but also after someone hears a rumor about a change. At best, they reach the future state over a long period of time. At worst, they abandon the change, and the benefits of the change are never realized.

When changes fail, trust for future change decreases, and future resistance increases. When changes succeed, trust for future changes increases, and future resistance decreases.

How Change Management Affects Transitions

Change management cannot guarantee success, nor can it completely eliminate the transitional process, but it can provide many benefits. In addition to helping others through their personal emotional change journey’s, applying change-management techniques is good for business.

3 Benefits Empathetic Change Management Provides

  • A reduced dip in performance
  • A faster adoption speed
  • A likelihood that more change will be adopted

The Takeaway

You don’t have to be a change manager to help others by using change management techniques.

By now, you understand that change is a process: a predictable and repeatable process, like leaves on a tree changing color as the weather gets colder. The process cannot be skipped — but it can be minimized by applying good change management.