Transitions and Change: Working in the Wobbly Zone

The KonTerra Group has facilitated many conversations with organizations and their staff about transitions in the midst of change. We love helping these conversations happen because research suggests that high levels of change – and how those changes are implemented – is a huge source of stress for staff in humanitarian aid and development work. Poorly understood and managed change can trigger widespread low morale, cynicism, apathy, depression, and undesirable staff turnover.

How teams find strategies to work together to manage change and transition directly impacts the amount of stress and anxiety staff experience on the job!

What Is Change and Transition?

If it is so important, what can help manage change and transition?

Understanding the dynamics at play is always a good place to start. Begin by considering the difference between transition and change, as discussed in Managing Transitions, a book by William Bridges.

Change is external and situational. It might include things like a new work site, new boss, new team or new policy.

Transition, on the other hand, is internal. It is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the change. Transitions have three stages: letting go; the neutral zone; new beginnings.

  • Letting go. This is the initial stage of transition, wherein individuals require time to let go of the old in order to accept the new.
  • The Neutral Zone. This middle stage of occurs when individuals begin stepping into the new, while often still having some sense of attachment to the old. As staff take these initial steps forward, it is crucial to provide clarity of direction; opportunities for small, quick wins; and constant feedback and communication to keep staff motivated and positive about the transition process.

    We’ve come to call the middle phase of transitions “the wobbly zone” because it can feel like walking on a high wire, midway between the old and the new. it is a moment-to-moment balancing act, uncomfortable for almost everyone.
  • New Beginnings. This final stage occurs when staff begin to embrace the change and sense their contribution to its success. It is important to take the time to acknowledge the significance of the change and reward the hard work that resulted in getting to this stage.

It is important to acknowledge that because transition is personal, individuals will move through these phases at their own pace, relative to their own level of comfort with the change.

What Helps?

In our work on transitions, the following three practices have proven to be effective strategies in helping individuals and organizations manage change and transition.

  1. Celebrate the past before moving forward

    Significant changes in the work environment provide an opening to reflect on the history, strengths, and hard-earned knowledge of your team before plowing forward. One of the most common mistakes made when dealing with change is catapulting staff forward into the new change without taking vital time for assessment, allowing for the “letting go” process, noting endings and acknowledging losses.

    In celebrating the past, it is important to affirm staff of their unique skills and abilities that will be critical to making the proposed change occur successfully.

  2. Managing change through collaborative engagement

    Collaborative engagement, or seeking input from staff and the team and then making adjustments based on that input, can be enormously helpful in managing change. Research demonstrates the efficacy of “the IKEA effect.” When people build it themselves – have a hand and a voice in assembling something – there is an increased level of buy-in and engagement.

    If we apply this to the work environm,ent, it suggests that when staff are given a voice in helping to shape a change, they also alue their team more and cope better with real or imagined loss. Collaborative discussions offer people this sort of ownership. Remember, if they don’t weigh in, they don’t buy in.

  3. Managing transitions by allowing time to process significant loss

    Managing transitions often involve staff changes such as reorganization or staff departing. In such cases, staff may experience a host of negative emotions, including: fear, loss, denial, anger, sadness and uncertainty. Without acknowledgement of such feelings and the time and space to process them, resistance will likely be encountered throughout the entirety of the transition process. Allowing staff to grieve the old as they prepare to move to the new is an important step in the process.

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