Manage the stages of change

Many leaders believe that effective change management is a two-step process. Step one is to plan; step two is to implement.

If the change requires a new organizational skill, leaders may realize the importance of preparing the organization for the change by offering training for employees. However, the people dynamics of change are often neglected. Success will only occur when managers engage both the minds and hearts of employees in the change process.

William Bridges, author of “Managing Transition: Making the Most of Change,” reminds us that change is situational; transition is a process. In order for a change initiative to succeed, the people impacted need to be supported during the transitions through change.

Bridges outlines a three-stage model for us describing the dynamics of change: Endings, the neutral zone and the new beginning.

Stage 1: Ending. Losing. Letting go.

Change is difficult. Bridges suggests that with all change there is a corresponding loss, even with personal changes that we chose freely. Consider, for example the “loss” that one experiences when he/she chooses to marry. While we appreciate the many possible benefits, there is also the experience of the loss of some level of independence, time, etc. For those of us who have experienced the joy of children, we know the corresponding loss of sleep, schedules, dollars, etc. When we anticipate that with every change there is a corresponding loss, our ability to adapt is strengthened; and for those who are not prepared for the “loss,” there is obvious struggle.

When change occurs in the workplace, the experience of loss, conscious or unconscious, mirrors our personal experience of loss and grief. There are effective ways for leaders and managers to respond that will advance the process with greater success.


Denial is a natural first step. The signs are manifested in statements like: “this won’t really affect me.” “Here is another flavor of the day.”

Employees tend to withdraw, focus on the past, engage in “busy” work.

The critical response from managers and leaders is: Information, information, information! There needs to be an effective communication plan that includes: giving and repeating information when you have it; admitting it when you are guessing; and when you don’t know, say so!


The face of resistance shows up in anger, blame, anxiety. For many leaders, this is the most challenging stage. It is the reason why many leaders resist acknowledging that there is a corresponding loss with change. They are afraid that if they talk about it openly, it will only “stir things up.” The irony is that when issues related to loss are not addressed, they go underground and create more damage inside the organization. During this stage of grief, managers are most effective when they are willing to listen, support and encourage.

Too often managers attempt to “sell the solution” rather than invite employees to recognize and own the problem or issue that the change is intended to address. Leaders may often move from planning to implementation without appreciating that change will be most successful when employees feel as though they have a voice in the process. That is the opportunity for managers. Meeting one-to-one rather than bringing people together is the better alternative during this time of resistance.

Stage 2: The neutral zone

This is likely to be the most critical stage in the change management process.

In the words of futurist Marilyn Ferguson: “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…”

This stage between the old and the new is messy and confusing. The risk to leaders is that they may become impatient, wanting to jump too quickly from the stage of “letting go” to the “new beginning.” Employees are overloaded, priorities shift, and communication deteriorates. It can be a time when employees lose confidence. Managers need to believe and assure employees that this is a normal stage in the process. The corresponding step in the grieving process during this stage is exploration.


Even during this time of chaos and uncertainty, we begin to see people move toward exploration and away from resistance. While there are challenges, employees are beginning to engage differently. We see them brainstorming ideas, attempting to focus on possibilities. While they may be frustrated, they are moving toward engagement. This is the time for managers to help to set short term goals. It is an opportunity to bring people together again in team conversations and strengthen communication.

Transitioning from the “neutral zone” to the “new beginning”, is a journey that takes time. Leaders who intentionally support and include employees on the journey are more likely to see the successful transition into the “new beginning.”

Stage 3: The new beginning

Bridges reminds us that new beginnings are marked by a “release of new energy in a new direction…”


As employees transition from the neutral zone to new beginnings they demonstrate focus, cooperation, and renewed energy. They have successfully moved from letting go, through the neutral zone into the new beginning.

Managers are now ready to work with employees on long term goals and to provide support for enhanced teamwork.

While transitions through change may seem like a linear process, the experience is actually much more fluid. Employees move in and out of the phases of loss, perhaps from denial into exploration and back to resistance. Would that it were a neat, linear process!

Leaders engaged in any change management project need to be prepared for the roller coaster ride of emotion and experience, trusting that it is part of the process in the journey from the old to the new. Only by engaging the minds and the hearts of employees, will the change evolve successfully.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display