The Three Stages of Change That Every Leader Should Know

The magic of discomfort and how leaders can help others navigate through transitions.

Have you ever been in a situation that took you completely out of your comfort zone? How were you feeling? What thoughts were running through your mind? Did you want to somehow turn back time and wish for yesterday?

Change Management for Leaders

The Middle Transition Stage of Change is Often Most Difficult for Leaders

We have all heard and read lots about how human beings don’t like change and how we resist change. This may be true in some cases but for the most part I don’t believe that we resist change; we resist the process that we know we will have to go through to get to the other side. We often long for something new, yet we don’t crave the discomfort and anxiety that comes with the process of change.

I have recently been going through a massive change myself and as someone who works in the area of change management and change leadership I am all too familiar with the stages of change and transition. Although change is not a cerebral process but an emotional one I take comfort in the fact that I do understand the stages of a transition and therefore am able to “talk” myself through the various phases.

I am not suggesting that knowing and understanding the phases of transition make the overall process easier yet it does help to understand what is coming, the hallmarks of each stage and to be able to encourage myself to make it to the next stage of the transition process.

There are several models for transition and change and one of the ones I often refer to is William Bridges model of Transition. Bridges identifies 3 stages which an individual must go through in order to successfully move through a change. These stages are 1) Letting Go 2) The neutral or grey zone 3) The new beginning.

I will tell you a story about a change that I recently went through and how I managed each of the 3 stages. I am a partner in a consulting firm and we came to a point where for a host of reasons we had to shift our business structure. Initially as this was being discussed I was resisting the idea of a change and I kept trying to find ways and reasons for which to keep the status quo. This is typical behaviour in the letting go phase…..trying to hang onto the past even though intellectually you know that it may be for the best. Why else would I have been resisting at this point in time? Well it was a very stressful and anxiety provoking time and it required me to address many things that were unknown and uncomfortable. I had to try and envision myself in the new reality and see myself many months down the road.

Now in many ways it was comforting to try and hang onto the past but at the same time hanging on was also causing me a lot of stress because I knew intuitively that moving forward was the right thing to do. So this is what some may call creative tension-that space between where you are and where you know you need to be and the effort that will be required to move forward.

Change Leadership

The middle transition of change can be the most critical for organizations and companies.

As I was in the letting go phase I was able to talk to myself and at least intellectually tell myself that this is a phase and that it will get better as I start to move into the neutral phase (the place between what was and what is yet to be). In the neutral zone I was now feeling some excitement (albeit still tinged with fear) and hope for the future (although the new reality is still not perfectly clear). At this point in the process I was starting to get excited about what the future may hold in this new reality.

The neutral zone can be even harder than the letting go stage because it requires you to really have faith. It is believing in what you can’t yet see. The metaphor that I often use to describe the neutral zone is the image of a trapeze artist who has let go of one bar and is in mid-air waiting to catch the next bar. This space in mid-air is the neutral zone. It takes courage to stay suspended (could be momentarily or for a very long time) in a zone that is between two things.

Bridges notes that most changes fail because people cannot handle the neutral zone and the uncertainty that it brings with it. People have a tendency to revert back to the old state and find the comfort that they already know. This is why when we are in the neutral zone it is important to understand that it is a temporary place that can be easily managed if we equip ourselves with the right tools. We must be able to have small goals that allow us to feel like we are making progress. Therefore, instead of measuring success and progress simply by the accomplishment of the large change measure progress and success by breaking down the large goal into bite-sized initiatives.

In the example of what I was experiencing there were so many parts that had to change and it was starting to feel overwhelming. In order to help feel more in control of the process I broke down the micro tasks that had to be accomplished in order to reach the larger goal. Every week I would try and accomplish 1-2 things on the micro task list. Not only did this allow me to feel more in control of the process it also allowed me to gain confidence and assurance that I was able to do this and that all would be great in the end. The idea of gaining control is a key factor in the neutral zone. The more that you feel like you have a handle on things the more you will be inspired to keep moving towards the new beginning.

Once I had forged an image of what the new reality could look I decided to be kind to myself and allow for mistakes and take the learning as it comes. The more I allowed myself the opportunity to learn and make mistakes the more I was encouraged to stay the course.

So as an individual it is easier to try and control what is happening within you and to control your own experience. Now if you are a leader and you have a team that you must lead and guide through change imagine what it is like to try and help many individuals who are also going through all these phases of transition. First of all a leader needs to be aware of the fact that people need to transition through change (it is a process and not an event) and that the leader needs to be able to help people navigate through the emotional part of change.

Just as you would equip yourself as an individual to thrive through change a leader also needs also to have this knowledge and understand how to help people navigate through these phases. It is only through people that an organizational change can occur, so lead wisely-whether you are leading yourself or leading a team.

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