Changing How We Think About Change

| | Personal Leadership

The following is a guest post from Jann E. Freed, PhD, who is a leadership development and change management consultant with The Genysys Group.  For more information, please see her website where she blogs about learning, leading, living, … sage-ing®.


The only constant is change. Change happens to everyone.  Some changes are personal and some changes are widespread affecting many people. 

We get married or divorced.  We have children and they leave for college—sometimes they return home.  We get promoted—we lose jobs.  We move to another neighborhood—our parents move back to town.

Regardless of the change, all changes force us to go through a process of psychological and emotional adjustment.  We need to “let go” of the way things used to be and get ourselves ready for the way things are now.

I interviewed William Bridges, one of the leading experts on transition, author of The Way of Transition.  He developed a Transition Framework that is used by leaders in organizations and communities to help make deep change.

I also interviewed Barbara Beizer, a Transition Coach and Organizational Development Consultant.  Beizer has been using Bridge’s work for many years in leadership and organizational development in both the private and public sectors.

They maintain that many change initiatives are not sustainable because leaders do not understand the importance of Transition.

Contrary to what we typically think, we don’t resist change (external event).  We resist the process of Transition (the inner and emotional aspects involved with change).  We resist letting go of the way it was or we thought it was.  We resist taking on a new identity or embracing the new situation.

In the Bridges framework, Transition is made up of three stages:

  1. Endings:  which often result in sadness, anger, or remorse.  We start with Endings because we don’t begin something without ending something.  We can’t move ahead (as people and as organizations) without leaving something else behind.  Something is being lost and we need to learn to let go.  We need to realize that people grieve for what was lost.
  2. The Neutral Zone:  which results in fear and confusion.  It is not so much that we are afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear … It’s like being caught between trapezes—dangling in the neutral zone.
  3. New Beginnings:  a mix of confidence over what has been gained and anxiety about what has been lost and worrying about slipping back into old habits.

Interestingly, we don’t mind endings or new beginnings as much as we dread the Neutral Zone.  That is why we go from one bad job to another, one bad relationship to another.  We don’t take the time in the Neutral Zone to process, reflect, and learn about why it ended or why the change took place.

When we don’t understand the transition process, change usually fails or is poorly executed.  Productivity is often lower and costs are higher.  We tend to be apathetic, not engaged, and emotionally drained.  The workplace feels dehumanized when we are treated as commodities of which to dispose or assets to depreciate.

When facing change, you can provide leadership by finding the resources, time, and energy to support yourself and others through the often difficult process of transition.  That begins with making sure you and others know why the change is taking place in the first place.

Transition is not always linearWe move back and forth between feelings associated with endings and the neutral zone.

Transitions are not automatic.  Transitions happen at their own pace.  The ending can be painful and the neutral zone confusing so we may have to be patient and allow time to process the change.

Transitions are not always successful.  When dealing with change, we need support, understanding, and patience.

What changes are affecting you right now?
Are you at the beginning? 
In the neutral zone?
At the end?

When we understand our own responses to Transition, we are more empathetic in understanding the behaviors of others.  We need to help people manage endings successfully, navigate the Neutral Zone, and support new beginnings.

It is time to change how we think about change.


Enter A Comment

Kent Julian   |   01 September 2012   |   Reply

Change is inevitable and ever constant…but accepting, adapting, and even embracing change is vital in achieving genuine success. What matters most for leaders is taking 100% responsibility of what we oversee in the process of change.

Jann Freed   |   04 September 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for the comments. I agree that responsibility and accountability are critical. I also appreciate the quote by Bateson. Since we are living in times of constant change, the key is to identify what is important and stay focused on what matters most. Hard to do when it feels as if we are spinning out of control. Thanks

Jon Mertz   |   03 September 2012   |   Reply

A very insightful post, Dr. Freed. I have not seen the transition stages before, but it makes a lot of sense. It does really point out the critical element of spending introspection time to determine the best path forward in times of change.

Thanks, Susan, for adding the voice to change and leadership.


Alan Kay   |   04 September 2012   |   Reply

“Change is happening all the time. Our role is to identify useful change and amplify it.’ Gregory Bateson.

Jann Freed   |   16 November 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for the quote. I often quote Mary Catherine Bateson because I like her work on Composing a Life and Composing a Further Life. Thanks for reading.