Managing Transitions by Susan & William Bridges: Overview

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What is Managing Transitions by Susan and William Bridges about? What are the main takeaways of the book?

In Managing Transitions, William Bridges and Susan Bridges provide a guidebook for any leader that wants to survive organizational change. Leaders must go through the three-step emotional process of transition that is most known as the Bridges Transition Model.

Read below for a brief overview of their book.

Managing Transitions by Susan and William Bridges

In Managing Transitions, William Bridges and Susan Bridges offer a step-by-step guide to support organizational leaders in effectively managing change. They argue that the external changes we experience are not nearly as challenging as our internal, emotional process of coming to terms with those changes, and therefore organizational leaders must support their teams through the internal transition process.

William and Susan Bridges collaboratively run William Bridges Associates, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizational leaders better manage the “human-side of change.” Both well-renowned experts in the field of change management, the couple has published multiple books on the topic. Leaders and management consultants still use the Bridges Transition Model, developed by William Bridges in 1979, as a tool for navigating the challenges of organizational change.

The Growing Trend of Human-Centered Leadership

William and Susan Bridges’ theory of transition management falls under the umbrella of human-centered leadership.

Human-centered leadership is a model of leadership that “puts people first.” The job of a human-centered leader is to consider the experience of their team members and to foster an environment in which employees feel valued, respected, and engaged. 

An increasing number of advocates of human-centered leadership argue that considering employee well-being does not have to come at the expense of profit. In fact, a 2014 Gallup study found that high levels of employee engagement led to profit increases of 22% and productivity gains of 21%, in addition to lower employee turnover and higher customer service ratings. In short, the choice between profit and people is a false dichotomy.  

Skeptics of the model, like entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, author of the book Woke, Inc., suggest that human-centered leadership practices have grown out of the increasing influence of progressive politics on business and offer little more than virtue-signaling. Within a conventional corporate model, a leader makes decisions based on the financial benefit to the business and shareholders. Human-centered leadership practices, on the other hand, also consider the good of the company employees and larger community.

Part I: Understanding Change vs. Transition

William and Susan Bridges explain that to effectively manage transitions, you must first understand the difference between a change and a transition. In this section, we’ll start by defining these key terms.

The authors make an important distinction between change and transition:

  • Change is external. It happens to us and around us. For example, a canceled flight is an external change—something beyond our control.
  • Transition, on the other hand, is internal. Transition is the psychological process by which we deal with change. For instance, when our flight gets canceled, we have to emotionally come to terms with a new plan we didn’t anticipate. 

(Shortform note: While psychologists have long distinguished between external changes and how humans internally process those changes, the language of “change” and “transition” became more common after the introduction of the Bridges Transition Model.  When defining the difference between change and transition, psychologists often cite the work of William and Susan Bridges. Psychologists have applied the Bridges Transition model in numerous contexts beyond the realm of business, from discussions of grief and loss to the challenges of leaving abusive relationships.)

Everyone confronts change on a daily basis. Change is inevitable and happening all the time: seasons change, relationships end, people move, companies are bought and sold. In Managing Transitions, the authors argue that external change is neutral, but our internal reaction to it (the transition) can be challenging. (Shortform note: Change is challenging because humans have evolved to prefer certainty. Our survival has depended on our ability to control our environment, so when we experience change, our brains tend to respond to it as a potential threat to our survival, causing a fear reaction.)

Therefore, organizational leaders should focus their energy on managing transitions. The authors caution that if an organization attempts to implement changes without supporting the people impacted (such as employees, clients, and partners) through the psychological process of transition, the goals of the change are bound to fail.

Part II: The Importance of Managing Transition

Simply put, organizational leaders must learn to manage transition because every organization experiences transition. All organizations will naturally change over the course of their lifetime as they grow from an idea to a start-up to an established company. A well-managed transition is critical if an organization is to move successfully from one stage of its evolution to the next.  

(Shortform note: William and Susan Bridges emphasize the importance of managing people through the stages of organizational growth. Implicit in their argument is the importance of broader cultural change during these periods of transition: Get enough people (or the right people) on board, and it triggers the necessary cultural change for the organization to evolve. But just like internal psychological transitions, cultural change can’t be mandated. People may grudgingly accept a mandated change, but they will lack the optimism, creativity, and excitement that are necessary to ensure the change is successful and long-lasting.)

Part III: How to Effectively Manage Transition

Here the authors expand on the idea of transition and introduce the three phases of transition in the Bridges Transition Model:

  • Phase 1: Closing (referred to in the book as “Ending/Losing”). The closing is the first stage of the process when people experience sadness or loss about what is ending.
  • Phase 2: The Bridge (referred to in the book as “The Neutral Zone”). The bridge is the second stage when an organization is in between systems and everything feels uncertain.
  • Phase 3: Emerging (referred to in the book as “A New Beginning”). Emerging is the final stage of the process when the changes have been implemented and there is widespread buy-in within the organization.

In order to successfully implement changes, organizational leaders must guide their teams through each phase of this transition process intentionally

(Shortform note: For each stage of transition, the authors outline a different set of management strategies. While the suggested strategies are unique to each phase of the transition process, they all fall under three main themes: planning ahead, leading with empathy, and communicating intentionally. We’ve reorganized the strategies under these categories to highlight common themes.)

Managing Transitions by Susan & William Bridges: Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of William Bridges and Susan Bridges's "Managing Transitions" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Managing Transitions summary:

  • A guidebook for any leader that wants to survive organizational change
  • How to go through the three-step emotional process of transition
  • How to help others navigate the loss and grief associated with transition

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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