William Bridges transition model of change: the change process of over time

Change

In this post I look at William Bridges’ ‘Transition Model of Change’, which reflects this idea of change over time.

Bridges’ ideas are really useful in helping you understand the process of change and the way that it can affect you differently as you progress through the various stages of change.

Sometimes change just happens to us and sometime it is something we intentionally bring about.

Intentional change can involve:

  • altering our circumstances, such as deciding to changing jobs, relocate or end relationships,
  • altering something internal to ourselves, such as the way we habitually think, or the way that we respond to events emotionally, or
  • altering our behaviours, such as breaking or building habits.

Whichever kind it is, change can affect you in ways that you hadn’t expected.

It can affect those around you too.

When you change yourself, it inevitably changes the way that others to relate to you.

For example, if you have worked hard at becoming more confident, people who are used to relating to the timid, self-conscious version of you, may find it hard to relate to the more confident you, especially if their purposes have been well served by dealing with the former.

And, of course, these kinds of change are not instantaneous. They unfold over time.

For these reasons, Bridges’ transition model of change is a valuable framework to assist you in understanding change, particularly as you experience its various stages.

Transition and Change

According to William Bridges’ transition model of change, you need to draw a distinction between change and transition.

Change is the event itself, something that is situational or external, e.g. the end of a project or a change of jobs. It might also be an external consequence that occurs when you change internally – for example, if you stand up to a domineering family member or boss for the first time.

Transition is the internal process of gradual psychological orientation to change. Transition can result from actual change and/or from the awareness of forthcoming change. So, according to Bridges when you are going through a process of intentional change, you are in transition for most of the time.

In the transitional model there are three phases, each characterised by different kinds of thoughts and emotional responses, some negative but others positive:

William Bridges transition model of change – Phase 1: Endings

This is when you begin the process of change. When you have recognised the need to change and have made a decision, even tentatively, to take some action to bring about change. This phase has the following characteristics:

  • The stable order of things in your life becomes fluid
  • A process of disengagement begins
  • You start letting go of the familiar ways of being or doing things
  • You have feelings of grieving or loss
  • You experience fear and/or anxiety.

There is a whole lot of discomfort and uncertainty at this stage, so it is easy to abandon your change efforts in order to avoid that discomfort.

You therefore need to be clear about the reasons why you are changing and have specific values based goals to support your change.

William Bridges’ transition model of change – Phase 2: Neutral Zone

This is when you are in the middle of trying to make change happen. This phase has the following characteristics:

  • It feels like a confusing ‘in-between’ state
  • You have a sense of disorientation
  • You feel like you’re waiting for something, with a sense of being in-limbo
  • Old rules may not count any longer
  • Old ways of operating may not work any longer
  • You experience fear and insecurity
  • You also experience surges of creativity and a sense of release.

The uncertainty and insecurity continues in this phase.

This is also when those around you might be discomforted by the changes happening to you, and this can add to your sense of unease.

Therefore, paying attention to your goals remains important.

On the upside, your efforts start to be rewarded as you begin to see the possibilities that the change is opening up to you. You need to hold firm to these creative surges as they’ll fuel your motivation to continue the change process.

William Bridges’ transition model of change – Phase 3: New Beginnings

This is when you begin to identify a way forward and start taking steps to put your plans into place. This phase involves:

  • A sense of risk and uncertainty
  • Feeling the possibility of failing
  • A mounting sense of excitement
  • Growing anticipation
  • Commitment to the new order.

As your transition begins to reach its natural conclusion, you move into the phase where the changed state is beginning to look like a new reality.

You may still be anxious, fearful of failure or struggling with certain relationships. But there is real hope, as the benefits of the new order are becoming clearer.

In this phase, you need to stick to your goals but you should also be intentional at recognising and congratulating yourself for how far you have come.

Positive aspects of Bridges’ transition model

Bridges’ transition model of change provides valuable insights into the human experience during periods of transition. It can serve as a starting point for leaders to better understand and support their teams during times of change.

Here are some of the advantages of Bridges’ transition model:

  1. Focus on people’s emotional experience: The transition model places a strong emphasis on understanding and addressing the emotional aspects of change. It recognises that people go through specific stages of transition, such as endings, the neutral zone, and new beginnings, and acknowledges the emotional roller coaster individuals may experience during these stages.
  2. Clear phases of transition: The model provides a clear roadmap of the stages individuals go through during a change process. By understanding these stages, leaders and colleagues can anticipate challenges, offer appropriate and mutual support, and facilitate a smoother transition for their team members.
  3. Attention to endings and letting go: One significant strength of the model is its recognition of the importance of acknowledging and properly dealing with endings. Bridges emphasises that before embracing new beginnings, individuals must first be allowed to let go of the old, which can be crucial for successful change implementation.
  4. Insight into the neutral zone: The model highlights the “neutral zone,” an intermediate stage where individuals may feel uncertain and disoriented. By recognising this often overlooked stage of change, leaders can provide support, resources, and training. This can help individuals navigate this period of ambiguity more effectively.
  5. Flexibility and applicability: The model is adaptable and can be applied to various types of organisational change, including mergers, restructurings, and process improvements. Its versatility makes it a valuable tool for leaders across different industries.
  6. Long-Term Perspective: The model encourages leaders to take a long-term perspective on change. It recognises that the process of transitioning to the new state is ongoing and requires ongoing support and attention even after the initial change has been implemented.
  7. Emphasis on communication: Bridges’ model stresses the importance of open and honest communication throughout the change process. Effective communication can help alleviate anxiety, clarify expectations, and create a sense of involvement and ownership among employees.
  8. Individual-centric approach: The model recognises that each individual may experience and respond to change differently. By adopting an individual-centric approach, leaders can tailor their support and interventions to meet the unique needs of their team members.
  9. Building resilience: The model indirectly supports the development of resilience within the workforce. By understanding the emotional journey of change, individuals may become more adaptable and better equipped to handle future transitions.
  10. Personal growth opportunities: Change, as emphasised by the model, presents opportunities for personal growth and development. It challenges individuals to adapt, learn new skills, and discover their strengths, leading to enhanced personal and professional growth.

Disadvantages of Bridges’ transition model

Bridges’ transition model of change is a person centred view of the process of change. It is therefore not really an all-encompassing change model, as many of the following disadvantages of Bridge’s transition model convey:

  1. Oversimplifies reality: Some critics argue that the transition model of change oversimplifies the complex and messy nature of change. Real-life change situations may not follow a linear progression, and people’s emotions and reactions can be far more unpredictable and varied.
  2. Lack of prescriptive guidance: The model provides a useful framework for understanding the emotional aspects of change, but it does not offer detailed guidance on how to address specific challenges that may arise during each stage. Leaders may find it difficult to translate the model into actionable strategies.
  3. Limited attention to external factors: The transition model focuses primarily on individuals’ internal experiences and emotions during change. Critics argue that it overlooks the role of external factors, such as organisational culture, leadership style, and market conditions, which can significantly influence the success of change initiatives. This is true, but somewhat misses the point that Bridges model if aimed at reflecting the experience of those who are subject to change
  4. Neglects continuous change: The model is most effective for episodic or major changes that involve distinct beginnings and endings. It may not be as relevant for organisations that operate in a state of continuous change, where transitions are ongoing and less distinct.
  5. Underestimates resistance: While the model acknowledges that people may resist change, some critics argue that it does not fully address the complexity and sources of resistance. Understanding and managing resistance are essential aspects of successful change management, and the model could benefit from incorporating more guidance on this front.
  6. Inadequate guidance for managing different transitions: Critics argue that the model lacks specific guidance for managing different types of transitions, such as technological changes, strategic changes, or cultural shifts. Tailoring the approach to specific types of transitions may require additional frameworks.
  7. Limited focus on leadership role: While the model touches on the role of leadership during the transition, it may not provide comprehensive guidance for leaders to effectively facilitate change. Leaders might need more practical advice on leading teams through various stages of transition.
  8. Potential rigidity in stages: Some critics suggest that the model’s delineation of distinct stages may be too rigid and may not fully capture the fluidity and complexity of human emotions and experiences during change. Real-life transitions might not fit neatly into these stages.
  9. Overlooks group dynamics: The model places significant emphasis on individual experiences but may overlook the importance of group dynamics and team interactions during change. Group-level interventions and strategies are vital for team cohesion and overall success.
  10. Limited inclusion of organisational context: The model’s primary focus is on individual transitions, and it does not extensively consider the organisational context or systemic factors that can impact the success of change initiatives. Integrating a broader organisational perspective is essential for comprehensive change management.

Conclusions

The point of taking you through this model is to help you recognise that the difficulties you encounter with any intentional change journey are entirely to be expected – even when the end point is a wholly positive one.

Change is hard and it challenges us at fundamental levels, bringing into question all sorts of fixed ideas that we have about ourselves, our identity and our capabilities.

This is the case whether we are trying to build higher levels of confidence, change our behaviours or otherwise seeking to alter our habitual ways of relating to the world, especially since change is almost never a linear process.

We are bound to encounter ups and downs, progress and set-backs as we make our way from endings to new beginnings.

The critical point is to remember that the transition is a process, not an event, and that you need to see the process through in order to reap the rewards of change.

References

  1. Bridges, W. (1991). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Da Capo Lifelong Books. ISBN: 978-0738209043.
  2. Carnall, C. (2007). Managing Change in Organizations. 5th ed. Pearson Education Limited. ISBN: 978-0273715360.
  3. Eby, L. T., Adams, D. M., Russell, J. E. A., & Gaby, S. H. (2000). Perceptions of organizational readiness for change: Factors related to employees’ reactions to the implementation of team-based selling. Human Relations, 53(3), 419-442.
  4. Dawson, P. (2003). Understanding Organizational Change: The Contemporary Experience of People at Work. Sage Publications Ltd. ISBN: 978-0761972418.
  5. Hayes, J. (2018). The Theory and Practice of Change Management. 5th ed. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1137604288.
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