What is Bridges Transition Model? Change vs Transition Explained

Trading Organisational Change for Personalised Transition

William Bridges, an organisational consultant, referred to change as a “transition” as a person moves from the current external event or situation to the future state. This puts a whole different emphasis on the transformation taking place.

The Bridges Transition Model provides your organisation, your leaders and managers, and your employees a framework to manage the human side of change.

In short, emphasising transition will help you guide people through organisational change, creating organizational resilience, aiding acceptance and leading to support for the change taking place. Thereby realising the value of change management.

In this guide, you will learn about the Bridges Transition Model and how to embed it into your organisation’s change management process.

What is the Bridges Transition Model?

The Bridges Transient Model is a model of change that change leaders can use to manage and drive change.

Personal and organisational change are not so different. Both are necessary and unavoidable, and people, generally, dread it. This psychological drama that evolves rapidly in between time, into fear of change in an organisation.

William Bridges differentiated between change and transition. He first published his Transition Model in his book ‘Managing Transitions’ in 1991.

Bridges differentiated between external and internal experience of change a person goes through.

He said that “change” is something that happens to you (whether you agree with it or not). Whereas transition focuses on what is happening within you – your thoughts and emotions as you move from one state to another.

It’s a subtle difference that can transform the success of organisational change.

By employing bridges a transition management model, instead of focusing on the external factors of the change required, and instead making it about the inner process of transition, you humanise the effort and make it about people.

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Ignore What’s on the Mind of Your Employees at Your Peril

Bridges’ internal approach is backed by a large amount of empirical evidence, much of which has been conducted since Bridges published his Transition Model. Articles and papers published by McKinsey and Company, for example, include:

  • ‘The psychology of change management’, in which it concludes that ‘companies can transform the attitudes and behaviour of their employees by applying psychological breakthroughs that explain why people think and act as they do’.
  • ‘The irrational side of change management’, which summarises that the chance of success of change programs ‘can be greatly improved by taking into account these counterintuitive insights about how employees interpret their environment and choose to act’.
  • ‘Getting personal about change’, the opening line of which is, ‘A sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot when you’re leading a large-scale change effort is to ignore what’s on the minds of your employees’.

In research conducted for the book Beyond Performance 2.0, it was found that organisations that addressed the mindset of their employees through change programs were four times more likely to rate their change programs as at least ‘successful’ when compared to organisations who showed no such concern.

William Bridges – Managing Transitions in Three Stages

On the curve of change management theories, the Bridges Transition Model has similarities to Kurt Lewin’s Change Model.

Lewin describes the psychological process of change as having three stages – Unfreeze (creating a sense of urgency), Change (moving toward a new and desired behaviour), and Refreeze (setting this behaviour as the new normal).

The Bridges Transition Model describes three inner psychological process stages that people transition through during change:

  1. Ending, losing, and letting go
  2. The neutral zone
  3. The new beginning

One of the major differences between Lewin’s Change Model and the Bridges Transition Model is that the Bridges Transition Model focuses on the individual.

This enables change managers to shape strategies for the personal nature of change – and personalise approach to the range of emotions that employees will experience during a period of change.

You may likely witness a transition during the period of change that is described by the Kubler-Ross Change Curve. People must be guided through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally to acceptance.

Let’s look at the three stages of the transition process and how to manage them in more detail.

Stage #1: Ending, losing, and letting go

All new beginnings start with an ending. In this stage, it is important to understand that people will experience the emotions of losing something with which they have become familiar.

This loss is likely to induce feelings that cause people to assess their purpose and role. They may look back with fondness, and forward with trepidation. Typical emotional responses during this stage include:

  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Denial
  • Frustration
  • Sadness

Left unchecked, the emotional upheaval during this stage can lead to resistance to the change desired outcome or project.

Leading people through their loss

It is crucial to be empathetic, listen effectively, and communicate clearly. Leaders show respect for the emotional responses of their people, and they take actions to help individuals through what is akin to a period of mourning. Tactics to employ here include:

  • Team meetings to explain the purpose of the change
  • Individual meetings to discuss what it means to individual employees and understand their concerns
  • Use feedback received to clarify the benefits of change to teams and individuals
  • Ensure that people understand what is changing and what is staying the same

Communication is key during this stage, and there cannot be too little of it. You should identify the support that individuals and teams need, explain why their existing skills and experience is important and how they fit in, and provide the training, coaching, and resources that are needed for people to adjust.

Stage #2: The neutral zone

In this stage, there will be uncertainty and confusion. Though much of the negativity will now be left behind them, people will be impatient to see the promised benefits of change starting to emerge.

Workloads may have increased as the team transition begins to accelerate toward the new environment. However, with remnants of the old still evident, there will still be some confusion and anxiety that must be managed. Emotions and attitudes are likely to be mixed, with people transitioning this stage at different paces:

  • Some people may still be resentful of the change, and this may cause their enthusiasm and productivity to wane.
  • Others may be excited by the changes and benefits that are starting to become apparent to them. This excitement may be accompanied by innovation and creativity.

Whichever emotions individuals are experiencing, their struggles must be accommodated as they become used to new processes, practices, procedures, and relationships.

Leading people through the neutral zone

It is crucial that you understand the mix of emotions and the individual nature of those emotions through this stage. While some issues can be tackled through team meetings and events, individuals need time and support to come to terms with what is happening in their personal world.

It is essential that managers:

  • Respond quickly and positively to feedback
  • Provide the resources and training that people need
  • Continue to communicate the benefits of the change and answer ‘what’s in it for me?’
  • Hold organisational events aimed at boosting employee morale
  • Communicate internally through multiple channels to get your messages heard

It is crucial that people are guided to find their own best ways of working, within parameters that are set by management. To link people’s personal goals, help them achieve sensible levels of job autonomy, encourage people to share their thoughts and ideas, set short-term goals, and reduce workload as much as is possible.

Stage #3: The new beginning

In this stage, people reach full acceptance of the change and the new environment, working practices and processes. They develop new skills, become comfortable with new relationships, and are contributing more fully.

In this stage, you will find people are positive about the change. This manifests itself in higher morale, greater motivation, and a willingness to contribute more.

Now, you can set more testing targets, and recognise and reward the hard work that teams and individuals have put in to get this far. However, there may still be employees who are still struggling, and these will need the most support now. Solidify the change by:

  • Cementing the new purpose and meaning into the organisational mindset
  • Leading by example, communicating, and behaving in line with expected new behaviours
  • Celebrating successes

This is the stage during which your sails are set for the course intended by your change program.

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5 Key Leadership Skills That Aid Execution of the Bridges Transition Model

There are five leadership skills that will help change managers to guide their people through their transitional journeys as they navigate the change process.

1. Emotional intelligence

A high emotional intelligence will help leaders to recognise their own emotions and the effect on their own reactions. It will also help them to understand why others react and behave the way they do. This is critical to showing the empathy necessary to influence people along the change curve.

2. Patience

Understand that individuals will move through change at different paces. Patience is required to encourage ‘laggards’ to step forward. Be positive and remain sensitive to people’s unique emotional responses.

3. Communication

Communication should be personalised and made to individuals. Clear, concise communication is needed to explain the benefits of the change. Communication should also be honest and authentic and made in ways that are appropriate to different employee groups.

4. Management and monitoring

You will need to ‘take the temperature’ of your employees constantly and consistently. They will need to be monitored, and their progress managed by action plans that combat resistance to change.

5. Coaching

The organisation should coach its leaders and managers to coach their people. Your managers should understand the emotional responses that they will need to deal with; and be equipped with the skillsets to help their people transition through the range of emotions they will experience.

Bridging Competitive Challenges

he one thing that is true today is that change is constant. Undoubtedly, 2020 will go down as the year in which this truth was cemented in the strategic planning of organisations of all sizes around the world.

The coronavirus pandemic, social justice issues, and climate change has shown how quickly the world can change, and how rapidly organisations must respond and adapt. Moreover, it has delivered the realisation that organisations are in constant flux.

While the coronavirus pandemic will, hopefully, be a once-in-a-lifetime event, there are other challenges to which organisations can apply the Bridges Transition Model to help their people adapt and adopt successfully. These challenges include:

1. Globalisation

The world is becoming smaller. Organisations are becoming more multicultural and more international. Even those very core organisations that are not located in multiple countries are able to sell to multiple countries.

As business becomes increasingly global, organisations must manage diversity, enable collaboration, and encourage learning.

2. Technology

Technology is advancing rapidly. AI and machine learning are disrupting working practices and whole industries. The technological age is upon us, and people feel threatened by it. Organisations must integrate tech into their businesses, and then demonstrate that it is a tool for people to embrace, not reject.

3. Regulation and compliance

With the globalisation of markets and the integration of new technologies, rules and regulations are evolving equally rapidly. Organisations are finding that they must adapt working practices, processes, and procedures to align with new rules and regulations. Without helping people to adapt and accept these, leaders face heavy fines and other sanctions.

4. Skills shortages

To generate the success that their new business strategy promises, organisations must attract and retain the services of talented people. They must develop the right skills for a sustainable business. They must also fill skills gaps to accommodate specific needs which may be short term.

Finding and hiring the right hard and soft skills is challenging today, with generally low unemployment and high demand. Consequently, organisations are globalising their workforce and hiring consultants for project-specific work. Both strategies present their own unique challenges.

5. Big data

The flow of data is both large and constant. Organisations have the challenges of harnessing that data for good, protecting it, and analysing it so that it can direct business strategy successfully. People must be helped to understand the power of data and to integrate it into the work they do.

6. Organisational restructuring

The drive for revenue and profit growth is very real. This encourages innovation and creativity, developing new products and services, and upgrading machinery, equipment, and processes to induce improvements in productivity.

Perhaps the most disruptive of changes are those that seek to improve productivity, sales, and profitability through mergers, acquisitions, or other organisational restructuring. This forces people into new relationships, new policies, procedures, and practices, and shifts once stable organisational cultures. That’s a lot of change for people to crunch mentally.

Exclusive Blog Post Bonus:
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The Bridges Transition Model Is Not a Stand-Alone Solution

Research has been proven that successful change relies on changing mindsets and that people’s emotions shift through the process of change. The Bridges Transition Model provides a solution to this, offering guidance for leaders to help their people make the transition from the current state to the future vision.

However, on its own, the model is not a stand-alone solution that guarantees the success of change projects. This is because it only focuses on the psychological side of change. There are many other factors that must be considered when making organisational change, such as the installation of new equipment, the learning of new technology, and the training of new working practices.

The Bridges Transition Model is a technique that should be used in parallel to other change management models – such as Kotter’s 8-step change model and Kurt Lewin’s change model. Such an approach will enhance your entire change process and management strategy and improve the chance that your change project will achieve its expected outcomes.

Finally, few managers and leaders are equipped with the skillsets required to successfully execute the Bridges Transition Model. It is not a rigid framework. It requires managers and leaders to apply it fluidly and individually and combine it with other approaches. For this reason, most organisations should consider employing experienced external consultants and change management specialists from early in the change process.

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