Why transitions matter more than changes

TunnelWe are living through a time of many changes. And every change is accompanied by a psychological or emotional ‘transition’.

Some of these transitions are small, others are large. But all can have a major impact on our ability to reach our goals.

Changes happen in the outer world. They are about starting or finishing a project, role, or relationship. Transitions happen in our inner world: they are about the impacts on our identity.

Changes involve places, things, events, transactions, and hierarchies. Transitions are about meanings, relationships, and stories.

Changes are visible, tangible. Transitions are invisible, intangible.Comparing changes and transitionsChanges can happen quickly but transitions can take a long time for people to work through.

Changes are predictable, transitions are not.

This is why change guru William Bridges says:

“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”

As an example: following an acquisition, Jane and her team found themselves with a new reporting line on the organisation chart. The changes they were being asked to implement were relatively straightforward: they could easily adopt the new technologies, focus on the new priorities, and work to the new performance metrics. But what really mattered to the team was the impact on their identities:

  • Would their work still be as important to the strategy of the firm?
  • Would they still be as close to core decision-makers?
  • Would their employability and status in the industry be affected?

These were the issues that really mattered to the team. This was what would drive the success or failure of the acquisition. But these emotional transitions were invisible and nobody was talking about them, let alone managing them.

Are you or the people close to you going through any changes at the moment? Is anybody paying managing the psychological and emotional transitions that must also be happening? Would it be useful to change that?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By Stig Nygaard via StockPholio.net

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