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When Change Threatens to Go South

I’m dedicating this blog (my longest one yet!) to a fabulous group of people with whom I have been privileged to work the past several months, and to my esteemed colleague, Kathleen McSweeney.

Plum Cluverius

It was a tough week for the admissions department of a private university. As the director said: “Change is hard!” He should know. His department is undergoing a significant reorganization due to continued staffing shortages and financial constraints. As implementation of the new structure got underway, and even though staff was involved from the start, tempers flared, water cooler whispering resumed, and some of the hard won trust and cooperation within the group began slipping away.

This behavior has caught the managers and staff off guard because the group has worked so hard to create a collaborative environment. The reorganization occurred in part to rectify staff concerns about uneven distribution of work, less than efficient processes, and confusion about leadership roles. Everyone in the department had opportunities to share ideas for the new structure—in meetings, in writing and one-on-one. Changes and their reasons were explained. Staff and management learned together how to communicate, resolve conflicts, work together as a team. They talked together about the future they wanted for the department.

When this department had done so many things right, why did things seem to be going wrong? An answer, I think, lies in William Bridges seminal work on transitions, detailed books like Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, and Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. ( www.wmbridges.com ). Bridges helps us see that our emotional response to change, our adjustment to change, what he calls “transition,” is pivotal to the success of any change effort. Each person goes through, at their own pace, three stages of transition.

The first, which Bridges calls “endings,” is the process of saying goodbye to what we must leave behind in the change. Even with positive changes, there is some sense of loss—and loss produces a host of emotional reactions. In the admissions department, this meant saying goodbye to familiar work teams, processes, student groups, roles.

Once we recognize what’s going away, we enter a period that Bridges call “chaos” or “the neutral zone.” I’ve always preferred “chaos” because that’s what it often feels like! In the “chaos” stage, you know what you’ve left behind, but you don’t know where you’re going. Someone from the admissions department said, “you don’t have the picture yet, you don’t know what it’s going to look like.” You’re kind of groping around in the dark. All of us like some sense of certainty, and in “chaos” there usually isn’t much. People experience a variety of emotions—confusion, fear, anger, exhaustion. It can seem hard to get going. It doesn’t sound very pretty, does it? But there’s an upside. In “chaos,” all the old rules go away; it’s easier to be creative. When things are going smoothly, it’s easy to get into a rut. But in “chaos,” there is no rut. You can try new ideas, new ways of doing things.

In the third phase, which Bridges calls “new beginnings,” you begin to get the picture. You see where things are going; you understand what you need to do to thrive in the new world. You form new habits that work. It’s not always an easy phase, but you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Every individual, every group, every organization goes through these phases. We don’t go through them together—everyone has their own pace—and we don’t go through them in an orderly way. We wander all over the place—one day hopeful, the next day discouraged, the next day angry, the next day excited, etc. etc. Leaders, often because they are more involved in the planning, are often further along in the process than the staff, and they can forget what it’s like to not know, to be in the dark.

Bridges helps us see that all these reactions are normal. In a transition, both people and process benefit when individuals are tender with themselves, tender with each other and patient with the process. The admissions department has learned the value of discussing progress and setbacks with each other, celebrating successes, staying involved in planning the future, speaking up and offering solutions when something isn’t working.

Any team, department, or organization contemplating a change, or finding themselves in the midst of one can learn from the admission department’s experience. Change is hard. But when you understand the process of transition, you can move through it more smoothly and successfully.

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