The surprising lesson leaders can learn before even getting out of bed

By Heather Campbell

Friday is the time to transition from the working week to the weekend for many of us. It’s a change we mostly welcome, isn’t it? I remember, some years ago though, where the weekend was anything but welcome. I’d just gone through a very messy breakup and week-ends loomed large and lonely ahead of me. It was a painful transition.

Last week I wrote about the difference between change and transition – the change being the event and the transition being the human processing of that change. I particularly like William Bridges’ model around emotional transition – he developed it through research into the way we process the death of a loved one. Emotional transitions aren’t always big things though. Everyone reading this email shares one emotional transition every single day, I am sure. That’s the emotional transition we make from sleeping to getting out of bed. If you’re one of those people who wakens up every day and springs out of bed raring to go, you probably won’t get this. Your emotional transition is easy (and I’m just a little bit envious).

But, if you’re like me, the emotional transition is obvious. The change from being in bed to being out of bed is simple. But, my emotional transition requires two presses of the snooze button (occasionally three), some self-pity that I just don’t feel that well rested (even though I usually am once I am fully awake), a bit of figuring out what the weather might be like, a wee battle with myself not to scroll through the news on my iPhone (one I don’t always win), some toe wiggling to make sure my feet are still there…before I am finally ready to actually stand up.

Now, without getting too much more up close and personal, I’ll also admit that the emotional transition is not always the same. A bright, sunny Saturday morning with a day ahead filled with things I love to do – the transition is easy. A dark winter’s morning when there’s a gale blowing outside and I’ve had a restless night (that storm ruined my sleep as well). Oh, that’s a tough transition. The snooze button is just so much more inviting.

So, we go through emotional transitions all the time. Sometimes they’re big. Sometimes they’re small. But one thing that is constant – only we can take them. It is our very personal transition.

And it’s because of this that leaders need to re-think their approach to change if they are to make it easier for everyone involved. I believe that the idea of ‘leading change’ needs to be broken into ‘managing change’ and ‘supporting transition’. The change is the event (or events) taking place and applies to things that don’t have a mind of their own. Things that we can control and manage to fit our timescales. IT systems, org charts, office refurbs…

As soon as people come into the picture, the emotional transition begins. This cannot be led because the idea of leading transition doesn’t focus on the individual experiencing the transition. It focuses on the vision that the change leader is moving towards. It focuses on achieving the goals of the change. ‘Leading’ suggests that there is a place to get to and you have to get there, whatever transition you are experiencing.

‘Supporting’ focuses on the individual experiencing the transition – on what is happening for them and on their needs. It is about understanding and meeting their needs. It is about allowing time for the transition. This doesn’t mean that the change doesn’t happen. That wouldn’t make business sense. But sometimes, it might just mean adapting the change to fit the transition.

This often worries the people leading the change because they have goals to achieve. I know this. I have led many major business changes. Over and over again I have found that, counterintuitive though it is, supporting people through their transition will almost always mean that the change is achieved more quickly and easily. Next week, I’m going to share a case study that sets out exactly why this is.

For now though, here are five steps you can take that will help ensure you are ‘supporting transition’ rather than ‘leading change’:

  • Build time into your plans for the transition to take place. Too often, change plans are built around the inanimate elements rather than the thinking, feeling, breathing humans who have to transition in order to make the change a reality.
  • Remember, if you are leading the change, you are already well on your way with your transition. And, if the change is your idea, you made the transition before the change was even finalised. People have to catch up.
  • Recognise that transition is highly personal – you cannot push or cajole people through it.
  • Emotional transition isn’t always tough, but it is tougher when people have concerns. Recognise how difficult it is for people to articulate these concerns. This is especially so if you don’t have an environment where people can speak freely when there is no change underway; you can’t expect them to speak freely when it is.
  • A strategic change becomes multiple micro-changes at the point of implementation. Writing the strategic change plan may be the end of the change for you, but all those micro-changes can mean many different emotional changes for the people who make the change happen. Change is always more complex at the point of implementation than it is at the point of planning (and most are complex enough at that strategic stage, anyway). You will only understand just how complex this is if you listen to those individuals impacted. And it is only when you understand, that you can support the transition.

Have a great weekend and many happy transitions.

And always observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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