Why transitions matter more than changes

We are living through a time of change. And, whether we’re aware of it or not, every change that happens to us brings a psychological or emotional impact. These psychological or emotional impacts are called transitions.

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

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

Changes are visible, tangible.
Transitions are invisible, intangible.

Changes can happen quickly, one after another.
Transitions can take a long time for people to work through.

Changes are predictable.
Transitions are unpredictable.

Comparing changes and transitions

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 of experts 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, priorities, and performance metrics they were being asked to take on.

But what really mattered to the team was the impact on their identities:

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

Because these emotional transitions were invisible, nobody was talking about them, let alone managing them. But these were the issues that mattered to the team. And these were the issues that would decide the success or failure of the acquisition.

Changes are relatively easy to implement. What really matters is the transitions.

Are you or the people close to you going through any changes at the moment? Is anybody talking about or 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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