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Reflection – Annie Wolf Mendoza

by on October 23, 2007

In the first chapter of the book I am reading for my book review (Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, by William Bridges) the author makes a point of distinguishing between change and transition. He argues that change is a new situation, like a new job, boss, house, baby, etc. On the other hand, transition is the “psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation” (pg 3). I thought this was a really important point and I was surprised when I realized it hadn’t been so clearly addressed in The Heart of Change (if it was addressed at all). I find it particularly interesting because that book is so focused on the feelings and emotions surrounding any and all kinds of change. Managing Transitions really drives home the reality that in order to accept something new (be it a new way of doing something, or a new object or person) one must first make a transition. This is true for all kinds of change, whether it’s “good” (for example, getting married or buying a house) or “bad” (like being forced to use a new system or adhere to the rules of a new policy at work).

Bridges also addresses what he calls the “neutral zone”. This is the place between the old and the new (he also refers to it as no-man’s-land). The neutral zone is typically marked by feelings of discomfort, confusion, sadness, and even anger. I think a lot of people recognize this state and have experienced it at one point or another in their lives, even though they probably didn’t know exactly what it was. I know that I have experienced it, on more than one occasion, both in my personal life and in my work life. In fact, I can think of one very recent occasion. Over the summer I started my internship and at first it wasn’t really going well. I didn’t really know anyone and I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I felt irritated and kind of depressed about having to go in to work every day. I found myself longing to go back to my job at the bank; a job which I had once really enjoyed, but that of which I had grown tired. I was confused; why did I suddenly want to go back to the bank so badly? Why was it more appealing to quit my internship and look for something altogether new than to stick with it? The answer is the neutral zone Bridges describes, which is a pretty scary place to be. I think it can be even more so if the change is supposed to be a happy one. Last summer I bought a house and moved out of my parents’ house. I had lived with them my entire life; I had never even rented an apartment on my own. I was moving in with my then fiancé which was really exciting, however I was also very sad and a few nights, after my fiancé had fallen asleep, I would lay there in bed and cry. I didn’t really understand why I was reacting so strongly; I had been looking forward to moving in with my fiancé and having our own place for a long time. I actually worried that there was something wrong with me, that my mind was trying to tell me something. The feelings passed after a few weeks, but that didn’t make them any less scary.

Now imagine what that kind of distress could do in a workplace-setting. Let’s say an employee is really excited about a prospective change at work. She is totally on board and looking forward to seeing the change plan put into action. She is prepared to do her part to make it successful and is very good at motivating others around her. So the change happens and she finds herself feeling frustrated and confused and depressed. She was prepared for excitement and enthusiasm, not anger and tears. This can really throw a person off and quite possibly destroy her faith in the change. She might think it is her gut instinct telling her that the change is wrong. This could have even more repercussions since she is an influential person in the company. Suppose she shares her feelings with others and finds that some people feel the same way. She might convince them that it’s an indicator that the change was a bad idea and should be abandoned.

It may sound exceedingly sappy, but I think you have to let people know about the neutral zone. They need to know what to expect; that the feelings they will experience are normal, and that just because they feel confused, angry, sad, frustrated, or whatever doesn’t mean the new way is bad. A good exercise to demonstrate this might be to set up a workshop and have people think about a good change in their lives. Have them list out all the reasons why the change was good, even if their reasons are qualitative (like, we always wanted to own our own home). Then have people write out the scary or bad things and feelings they experienced after the change occurred (like, we couldn’t eat out three nights a week anymore because we had the mortgage to pay). Ask them to compare those feelings to the ones they are currently experiencing at work. Just because it is scary or irritating doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. All change is hard and it’s emotional, whether it is happening at home or at work. People need to be reminded that this phase is normal and if they stick with it and lean on their support systems it will pass.

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