An employee has been unhappy in her workplace for a few years. The organization is struggling, and her role has been modified more than once. Yet when asked if she would be willing to look for something more fulfilling, her response was strongly negative.
In another situation, leaders talked about a change in their organization, and the initial reaction from employees ranged from mild to moderate panic, bordered by a fair amount of resistance.
Why does a picture of change often look so dark? It may have something to do with how you frame the impending changes.
William Bridges developed a “Transition Model” several years ago that focused on how people make transitions in their lives. “Change is something that happens to people, even if they don't agree with it,” he noted. “Transition, on the other hand, is internal: it's what happens in people's minds as they go through change. Change can happen very quickly, while transition usually occurs more slowly.”
Change is a factor of life. Our kids change from infants to preschoolers to graduates. Our initial entry into the workforce is not where we finish our careers – often there are added responsibilities, new titles and new stresses. Yet these changes are often welcomed and encouraged.
Why is one frame of change so positive while others are not?
As Bridges noted, “change” is often something that is imposed on an individual. It is the internal work – the transitions – that allow us to handle the external upheavals successfully. When a person is experiencing an external change, the internal emotional context or frame may determine how successfully they navigate the changes.
Bridges’ model identified three stages of transition:
Ending, Losing and Letting Go. Here the frame holds a picture of the past, often with emotions of grief and loss, sometimes frustration or anxiety. One individual who had a major change in her organization said, “I’m still grieving the team we had then. I know I can’t go back, but I miss that group, that camaraderie.” Before a person can move on, there needs to be an acceptance that something is ending.
How to help? In conversations, a leader needs to listen empathically and communicate openly about the changes. The emphasis needs to be on a clear, concise vision of the future. Offers of support or added training may be useful to help teammates let go. People often fear what they don't understand, so the more you can educate about a positive future, and communicate how their knowledge and skills are an essential part of getting there, the likelier they are to let go of this frame and move on.
The Neutral Zone emphasizes where the individual fits into the new picture. Here, the emotional content might include resentment toward the new initiative, lower morale, and lower productivity as the individual explores their new role, status, or identity.
At this level, the individual is trying to figure out where they fit in the new frame. Short-term goals help people experience some personal successes, and also help give a more positive perception of the change. Encouraging people to explore where they fit in the new configuration will promote buy-in and help them see how their contributions matter to the success of the change and the organization.
The New Beginning. The energy is starting to return, as people begin to embrace the new realities. They’re seeing how their skills work successfully in the new frame paradigm, there is more willingness to learn, and a renewed commitment to the success of the group.
The focus of this frame is on the initial successes, and linking the individual’s goals to the organization’s long-term goals, creating a win/win scenario. It’s also appropriate to celebrate the changes, and reward the team for the extra effort they’ve given.
Finally, it’s important to remember that at any given point, most organizations in transition have people who are looking through frames at each of the three levels. Some are grieving the losses, some are trying to figure out where they fit, and some are eagerly charging ahead to the next adventure. Active listening, thoughtful reflection, and supportive responses will be helpful with each frame.
The Village Business Institute provides services that help individuals and organizations succeed in the midst of change. For more information about how The Village's Employee Assistance Program or Consulting and Training Services can help you or your team, call 800-627-8220.