Caroline talks about the importance of managing transitions.
The last piles of snow in my neighborhood JUST melted this week in my neighborhood (Yes, it’s been a long and snowy winter here..), and tiny purple and yellow bits of flowers are peeking out. That makes me SO happy to live in a place with four seasons. Nature has its way of marking the passage of time and signaling changes to come.
I recently went back to my notes from one year ago when we were just starting to grasp the full scope of this global Pandemic and WOW! It's like a little time capsule of innocence. I was in awe of the idea that so much of my work could be done by Zoom, and I believed that elbow bumping instead of shaking hands would keep me somewhat safe in a windowless room with no masks. Eww.. And so, one very long year of “sci-fi meets real-life” began, and what went down in the past year will continue to haunt and shape us for many years to come.
Early days of COVID-19
Visiting Grandma with masks on
Photo credit: Chong Oh
Now that vaccination is starting to speed up here in the US, and more workplaces are scampering to plan their reopening, many of the conversations I’m having with clients and friends are turning into talks on how to “go back” to work and life. Everyone is excited about some of the aspects of going back, mainly vacations (haha), and getting back on track with work and life goals they have put on hold because of the Pandemic. However, there is also some anxiety and even dread about going back and losing what we’ve enjoyed or gotten used to. There is also real fear about the different variants and people who cannot or will not get vaccinated for various reasons.
In short, things are about to change all over again! While the end of the quarantine life is what we all want, changes are always hard, especially since this past year has been nothing but hard changes we’ve had to make.
So this month, I am mixing things up a bit and keeping this note focused on just one book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, and on my takeaways to support you (and me!) in efforts to get ready for the next round of changes. As always, I have reserved few copies of the book to gift, if you would like to read it.
Transition is a psychological process that comes with each change, made of three phases: ending; neutral zone; and beginning.
Many leaders only focus on planning and announcing the change and expect people to embrace the change right away. Without guiding those they lead through the process of letting go or navigating the neutral zone in between the old and new ways, leadership is doing themselves a disservice because people within the organization will lose their confidence, feel stress because of it, and experience low morale and lack of trust in their leaders. Organizations that do this routinely suffer from “transition deficit,” and at some point, may crumble or implode at what is seemingly a small change. I laughed when I saw this quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt in the book.
“It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead-and find no one there.”
Even for “good change,” properly process the ending phase so that you can make room for the new ways.
Nobody would wish this Pandemic on anyone, but we have managed to adapt and live this way for more than a year and found some things that have worked for us. Maybe we got to spend more time with family or exercised more. Personally, I’m happy that I’ve been able to avoid a crowded subway ride with my face near a stranger’s armpit (I’m just short enough that I find myself regularly in that spot.) or that I got to skip some “obligatory” gatherings that aren’t fun or meaningful to me.
As a Mom, I’ve chatted with my kids about what they will miss as they mentally prepare themselves to go back to school full-time in an in-person setting starting in May. For one, they have enjoyed waking up late on weekdays for a remote class while enjoying a leisurely breakfast in their pajama bottoms. This has helped us reflect on what has been important and special to them about the last year, before moving on to what would be better and exciting about going back to school all day. We’ve even shared ideas on how we might try to continue with the less stressful morning routine once we return to in-person learning.
As we plan our return to work, (some of you are planning your companies’ return!), how would you process the loss of one “ending” so that you can get excited about what’s next? How would you help your colleagues do the same? This doesn’t have to last a long time or be depressing! The book gave a fun example of a company that held a happy hour in honor of an intranet site being discontinued to playfully “mourn the loss” of something they used for a long time.
Neutral zone is a dangerous time but also a creative time.
The neutral zone starts from the time you find out about the change until the time the change is fully rooted in the hearts and minds of folks living or implementing it. It is a stressful time when neither the old ways nor the new ways work well. During this time, people suffer from high anxiety, low confidence, and low morale. This is the phase where people start to doubt themselves or their leadership, existing weaknesses become more obvious, and rumors start. People have very little “give,” and small things turn into big things.
This is the phase we lived in during most of 2020 and this is why we are all so tired!
We would all benefit from “normalizing” the neutral zone by acknowledging how natural these feelings are. We can also slow down the pace, celebrate small successes, and limit additional change if possible (or clustering changes into cohesive themes that are connected to the larger goals). It is also important to provide as much information and clarification as to help minimize fear and rumors.
If you can help people feel reasonably safe and secure, the neutral zone can be a highly creative time. During this time nothing feels set in stone, so with the right guard rails set in place, this can prove to be an optimal time to host retreats and open conversations to solicit new ideas, innovations, and experimentations.
Waiting for the end of the Pandemic
As we move through the neutral zone phase, we can begin to imagine the new beginning and its possibilities. As we lead, we can articulate this vision and help people see their own role and connection to achieving it.
Again, don’t force people to feel inspired and excited about the new beginnings by insisting! I heard someone say the other day, “You can’t drag someone to the dance floor.” I mean, I have been dragged to the dance floor and it is not fun for anyone, including the person who dragged me as well as the people watching the embarrassing and resentful dance that ensues. You have to make folks want to dance by providing them with fun music, the right lighting, and whatever else they need to get in the mood to dance.
Likewise, you have to make a case for the change, sell the need, create a compelling and inspiring vision, all while creating systems and processes that will support people through the change at every step of the way so that people feel ready and willing to.
What is the change you are working on, and what phase of the transition are you in? What do you need to do to get to the next phase? As always, please feel free to write back and let me know how you are doing.
See you again in April!
I want to thank so many of you who reached out about the recent racist attacks on Asian Americans, especially since the murder of 8 people including 6 Asian women in Georgia. It means a lot. I have a lot of thoughts around this I want to share with you in the future. But for now, please take a look at my February Notes and this article from The Cut, as they accurately describe how I would like you to support the Asian American community. In the meantime, I borrow the words of actress Sandra Oh at the 2020 Golden Globe. “It’s an honor just to be Asian.”