How to Deal With Change

by Gilda Bonanno LLC 

“Nothing is constant other than change” goes the old adage, but sometimes change can be difficult to deal with and even painful.  I find it helpful to follow the model developed by one of the great leaders in the change management movement, William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change and Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes

Here is his simple, three-step human cycle of change model: 
William Bridges model of human cycle of change and transition

The first step is the change.  Whether it was planned or unplanned change, positive or negative, whether you quit your job or lost your job, or moved your office or got married, the old way of doing things has ended.

The final step is the new beginnings when the new reality is in place, whether it’s a new job, house, assignment or partner.

In between endings and new beginnings is the neutral zone, where people can often get stuck.  The ending has happened, but we’re not quite into the new beginning yet.  It’s like being a trapeze artist in the circus. To get from one trapeze to another, you have to let go of the old trapeze and reach for the new trapeze, and for a moment, you feel like you’re falling because you’re not holding onto anything.  But you’re really flying and the momentum carries you until you get to the new beginning, the new trapeze.

 In the neutral zone, we may experience a myriad of emotions about the transition.  We feel uncomfortable and sometimes frustrated, upset, disappointed or angry. While it’s natural to feel these emotions, the key to accepting change is to acknowledge the emotions and move through them into the new beginnings.  We also should recognize that the neutral zone can be a time of great innovation and creativity because the usual restrictions no longer apply. 

People respond to change in different ways and have to go through their personal journey to new beginnings at their own pace.  This individual response makes it challenging when a team of people face change together.  For example, if a company merges or gets bought out, some people on the team are fine with it and are ready to move on.  Others are stuck in the neutral zone and preferred the old way of doing things so they resist even having business cards printed with the new company name.

Whether you’re a manager or individual contributor, you have to be empathetic to each person as they go through the neutral zone.  And you have to recognize your own feelings as you deal with the change, which doesn’t have to be a monumental one to get you trapped in the neutral zone.

I remember once when I was working for a corporation, long before I knew about the Bridges model, my manager unexpectedly asked me to move my cubicle from one side of the floor to the other, to where a space had opened up closer to the rest of the team.  I agreed but I was thinking, “I don’t want to move. I like my location! I have my friends nearby, it’s quiet, I have a clear path from the elevator, I’m near the bathrooms. I don’t want to change!”

A week later, she repeated her request a little more forcefully, but still, I didn’t move.

The following week, she became very directive: “Gilda, you’re moving your desk today.”  At that point, I realized I had no choice and moved my desk that afternoon.  

The next morning after I got off the elevator, out of habit I walked to my old desk and then realized I no longer belonged there.

A couple days later, I was getting used to my new cubicle.  I enjoyed sitting near the rest of the team (including one person who had a consistent supply of peanut M&Ms on his desk!) and I found a new path from the elevator.  After about a month, I didn’t even remember the old cubicle. I had embraced the new beginning and adjusted to the new location.

The journey would have been easier if I had acknowledged that my feelings were a normal part of being in the neutral zone and had realized that things would be better if I accepted the change and continued on to the new beginning.  

So the next time you are faced with a change, big or small, indentify where you are on the Bridges model and resolve to make it safely through the neutral zone to embrace the new beginning and view it as an opportunity for growth. 

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