Managing change transitions – it’s what we give up that counts

My eldest son does not like change. That does not mean to say that he is not adventurous. He constantly expands his skills and knowledge as he finds new things that fascinate him. Once he masters a skill set he moves on to another, accreting skills as he goes. However, he does not let go very easily what he has learned and experienced, or the friends and acquaintances he has acquired over his time of learning. Managing change transitions for him, is difficult.

My wife does not like change. She is, by her own admission, reluctant to adapt to new circumstances and adopt new technologies. She is somewhat different from my eldest son in that she is both apprehensive of the new, and unwilling to give up what she is currently comfortable with. Given that we moved seventeen times in our first 24 years of marriage, her desire to cling to what was familiar was severely tested. Managing change transitions for her, is difficult.

When it comes to change, both my son and my wife share a characteristic which I find is often neglected in change management programs. That is, an understanding of what people perceive they have to give up. Most change management programs I have observed concentrate almost exclusively on what people have to learn new.

Managing Change Transitions: Bridge’s Transition Model

In 1991, William Bridges published his book: Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. In it, he postulated that it is not the change itself that kills a project or initiative, but managing change transitions that people have to go through; people who join an organisation in the midst of change tend to cope with the change much better than employees who were there before the change was initiated. His view, which I find replicated in life all the time, is that the population of people affected by a change form three groups:

  • Those who welcome the change as a “New Beginning”, and adapt quickly;
  • Those who waver between hanging on to the past and moving on, spending a lot of time in the “Neutral Zone”; and
  • Those who have trouble letting go at all.

From the curves in the below figure which represents Bridges’ graphic of the transition, we can see that a small minority of people see the change as a good thing, characterised as “The New Beginning”. We can also see that over time a proportion of people who are oscillating in the “Neutral Zone” move to the “New Beginning” set of feelings, thoughts and actions. Some never leave the “Neutral Zone”, being eternally conflicted between the old and the new.

managing change transitions - william bridges

Fig 1: Bridges Transition Model

The curves also depict a large minority of people—sometimes the majority—have trouble letting go the past, at first. Over time they too may move to the “Neutral Zone” and some will even move to the “New Beginning” zone. Some never let go.

Understanding what people have to give up

It’s my observation that, as my wife and son experience it, the core of managing change is not managing what we have to learn new, rather it is what we have to give up. This is at odds with what organisations are generally good at when it comes to managing change.

Large organisations in particular have whole departments dedicated to helping employees learn new things. They rarely have the capability to understand, at an individual level, what people perceive they have to give up. Even at a macro level, few organisations take the time to find out what people generally believe they are giving up.

There are, in my experience, some common elements people perceive they have to give up when experiencing change. They are power, a sense of belonging, aspirations and control.


The most common element people perceive they have to give up is power. Power comes from different sources for different people, and change may diminish their access to that source of power. For example:

  • Legitimacy: when a change affects a person’s place in a hierarchy, their perceptions of their own legitimacy may also be affected.
  • Reference: a change compromises a person’s place in the chemistry of a group, for example, by moving into an entirely new culture or to a group with people they do not know.
  • Information: a change can make it more difficult for a person to hold their place as the ‘controller’ of knowledge; for example, a change may open up controls over the database where information resides. The database may be a physical or virtual dataset to which they previously controlled the access, or it could be information residing in people’s heads and they controlled the physical access to those people e.g. personal and executive assistants
  • Expertise: a person’s place in a group as the expert on a topic is compromised when they are moved to a group where that knowledge is not valued so highly. Alternatively, a change may render their expertise less valued; think of the impact the adoption of word processing software had on those high accuracy, high speed typists of the eighties who did not have the skills to transition to a new career.
  • Coercive: when a change to a new empowering culture and transparent performance management system is introduced, it becomes difficult for an individual to hold power by means of overt or covert threats to an individual’s career.
  • Reward: a person’s place in a team as the one who can be relied on to create and maintain team harmony through their ability to encourage others and leave them with a feeling of self-satisfaction may be diminished if the change is overwhelming for other staff. Alternatively, the person may be moved to a group where they have no existing rapport.

Sense of belonging

At a certain level, the desire to belong relates to referential power. However, the desire to belong goes further than power. As a classic element of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the desire to belong is strong in most people. Change inevitably dislocates us from our environment, or our environment from us. In the majority of cases people have a strong affiliation to something such as a team, an idea or a process that they “belong to” that is difficult to give up. For example, a work restructure may require people to give up on existing team friendships—or even family and friends relationships if the restructure causes people to move to maintain employment.


As a result of change many people perceive they have to give up on their aspirations. They see the world narrowly. For example, they have their aspirations on a career within one organisation nullified by a change in organisational goals or structure. They see the change nullifying their aspirations forever instead of just with this employer. Alternatively, they see the equation:

article - managing change - what we give up

weighted such that taking on the ’new’ with enthusiasm in order to allow new aspirations to flourish has much, much greater risk and cost to them personally than the sum of their capability to realise the value from changing aspirations.


Some people are perfectionists and cannot bear the thought of losing control, wanting above all else to have certitude about the consequences of a change. People in this category have a daily fear of losing control. Generally, these people are well known by way of their existing control behaviours and can be dealt with individually. What is less obvious is that pervasive uncertainty about outcomes always has a far greater negative impact than the sum of disappointments in the extent of the change. The implication being that while an organisation will know about certain individuals with a fear of losing control, a poor communication execution that leaves the majority of people uncertain will create a larger unidentified group of people with a fear of losing control.

Making change happen

In order to make change happen in the workplace, we need to get a critical mass of people unafraid of letting go in addition to teaching them about the new. This means designing tactics to help people let go. Those tactics have two objectives:

  • To engage the organisation from top to bottom; and
  • To drive individual adoption.

In order to design the tactics we need to understand what people are afraid of letting go. Surveys, on-on-ones, forums and facilitated group sessions are all potential sources of information.

Engaging the organisation

Engaging the organisation is typically a journey where engagement occurs at different speeds, with different levels of success, in different places and at different starting times throughout the organisation. For example, it is still unusual to have change begin at the top unless it is a hard change driven by adverse internal and external factors. Most change starts at the middle with an idea borne of some analysis. Senior managers may sign off on a budget but their hearts and minds rarely support the change at a level of intensity that helps embed the change, at least until positive results can be demonstrated. So it is important to remember that senior managers may be slow to engage even if they have authorised the change.

Despite the different speeds and levels of engagement across different segments of the organisation, the journey of engagement for the different segments is the same. The journey for all segments of the organisation is in five phases:

  1. Understand the change
  2. Believe the change is good for them
  3. Prioritise what they do to embrace the change
  4. Plan to implement the change
  5. Implement the change.

The point of the engagement journey where people, as a whole, begin to think about what they may have to give up is in the transition from understanding the change and believing the change is good for them. Communications at this point must be crystal clear about what people will and will not have to give up, and what they will have to learn new. Those segments of the organisation most likely to perceive they have something important to lose are the key targets for communications such as briefing notes and question and answer sessions, forums and frequently asked questions published on the organisation website or in hard copy.

Individual adoption

Managing change through the engagement of the organisation is a good start to getting acceptance of the changed circumstances or adoption of the change in behaviours.

However, most change requires more than engagement. It needs tactics targeted at the individual to have them give up the past and adapt to or adopt the new paradigm. The tactics, to be successful in having individuals adapt to the new environment or adopt the new behaviours, must result in three concomitant elements*:

  • Individuals must believe that the change is good for them and better than other elements in their life right now that are good for them;
  • Individuals must believe that the change is or will become the subjective norm; and
  • Individuals must believe they have the capability (skill, knowledge authority and access to data) to adapt to or adopt the change.

The good news is that there are a few things you can do to encourage individuals to let go, regardless of the type of change you’re going through or your audience.

For those individuals whose influence on the success or otherwise of the change is high, organise group discussions to uncover the fears they hold about what they may have to give up, which act as barriers to change. One-on-ones can be successful, however group sessions are much better. Well-facilitated group sessions allow individuals to voice their fears in an environment where they are not alone, and potentially allows them to find answers amongst their colleagues. Initially, facilitate these discussions to enable individuals to believe the change will be good for them by showing them that what they feared they had to give up is retained in another form or another environment. Demonstrate to them there will only be a short-lived transition. As a second priority, align people to the view that everyone will be working in the same environment with the same constraints.

Naturally, a well-managed communications plan and change management framework will also assist you in leading people through the transition.

Managing change is about managing the transition to new ways of working. However, most blockers to change come less from poor training in the new way of working, and more about not understanding and not preparing for what people have to give up. Planning for change and managing the transition must include a means of understanding what people fear they have to give up and engaging the organisation and key individuals to ensure that their fears do not stop adaption to and adoption of the changed working environment.


*Adapted from the Theory of Planned Behaviour, Icek Ajzen 1985 “From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behaviour.”

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