How to Prepare Teams for Organizational Transition

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Managing Transitions" by William Bridges and Susan Bridges. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is organizational transition? What is the first step to helping your team through the transition?

Organizational leaders must learn to manage transition because nearly every organization experiences transition at some point. Susan and William Bridges’s book Managing Transitions explains that there are three steps to navigating transition, the first of which is crucial.

Let’s look at how managers can smoothly introduce organizational transition to employees.

Phase 1: Strategies to Manage Organizational Transition

William and Susan Bridges explain that the first stage of an organizational transition is the end of whatever came before. To successfully manage a transition, you have to first acknowledge the need for closure to help team members move on from the old way of operating. Only then will they be open to what’s coming next. (Shortform note: Our desire for closure is closely related to our desire for control in the face of uncertainty. Closure has the potential to provide a sense of control in the face of ambiguity that enables us to better process our feelings and move forward instead of perseverating about the past.)

So how can you help people navigate the loss and grief associated with this closing and help them be open to new ways of doing things? The authors recommend multiple strategies that fall under the following themes: planning ahead, leading with empathy, and communicating with intention.

Plan Ahead for Your Employees

Planning ahead includes thinking through who will be impacted by the planned changes and anticipating their reaction.

First, recognize potential resistance by identifying impacted team members and what they stand to lose. Leaders will face the most resistance from employees who have something to lose in the change. So consider who will be impacted by the change and how they will be impacted—what will they lose? For example, if a team is going to be restructured, will team members lose the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with beloved colleagues? How might this affect their willingness to build relationships within their new team? These kinds of negative impacts can breed resistance.

Throughout this process, anticipate strong emotions from your team. Remember, even a seemingly small bureaucratic or staffing change has the potential to threaten people’s sense of comfort, core values, or stability. Any loss can bring up feelings of grief, which may manifest in a range of emotions, including denial, sadness, or anger. While stakeholders may not experience each one of these emotions, anticipate seeing different manifestations of grief show up at some point in the process as people come to terms with what they’ve lost. 

(Shortform note: The emotional transitions in the Bridges Transition Model roughly parallel the five stages of grief, a psychological model that outlines common emotional responses to loss. The model was introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book called On Death and Dying. While the model was created to explain grief following death, the concept has been applied to explain people’s response to change more broadly. In the model, people move from shock and denial through sadness and frustration before finally accepting and integrating the changes into their new reality.)

Emotionally Lead Your Team

In addition to planning ahead, the authors suggest leading with empathy. At this stage in the organizational transition process, allow team members to experience the complicated emotions associated with loss.

For instance, remember that people’s experiences are subjective. Everyone has their own experience of changes; just because something isn’t a big deal to you doesn’t mean it isn’t a big deal to someone else. Allow space for these individual perspectives, even if you disagree.

Additionally, the authors recommend publicly acknowledging loss. Talking about loss openly doesn’t make it worse: It helps. Be explicit in acknowledging what people are losing and listen empathetically to what they have to say.

(Shortform note: Other leadership experts argue that leaders should not only acknowledge loss, but also take responsibility for it. Acknowledging that your change initiative is the reason behind the loss will not only improve relationships with team members but also demonstrate that you are accountable for the damage caused by your decisions.)

You can also convey empathy by taking time to honor the past as the foundation of where you stand now. Create ceremonies around what is ending and let people hold onto mementos of the past. This could be something small and physical, like a team photo, or something more symbolic like a beloved company motto or logo. These gestures help people acknowledge and say goodbye to what’s being left behind.

(Shortform note: Research has shown that rituals and ceremonies performed after loss can help reduce anxiety and alleviate feelings of grief. This is because loss of any kind often compromises our sense of certainty and security. Rituals re-establish a sense of order and purpose around that loss, restoring an individual’s sense of control.)

Communicate Clearly With Your Team

Finally, the authors reinforce that communicating clearly with your team will help increase trust and minimize resistance to the changes further down the road in the organizational transition process.

Most importantly, they recommend always being as transparent as possible. Don’t withhold information unnecessarily. Communicate the changes and the timeline, and be clear about what’s changing and what isn’t. Everyone should know what they need to let go of and what they can bring forward into the future of the organization. Transparency will minimize anxiety and increase trust.

How to Prepare Teams for Organizational Transition

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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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