The Challenge of the Prolonged Neutral Zone Era – (Insight from William Bridges, Managing Transitions)

3he 3 Phases of Transitions - William Bridges
The 3 Phases of Transition – William Bridges

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. —CHINESE PROVERB
It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. . . . It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to. —MARILYN FERGUSON, AMERICAN FUTURIST
Quoted in Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges


Managing TransitionsI’m reading Managing Transitions:  Making the Most of Change by William Bridges.  It’s not new, and it is not his only book.  (Mr. Bridges died this past February).  Here is the book’s key reminder:

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

Let me oversimplify:  when there is change (hint:  there is almost always some major change going on—coming at us faster than ever)…  when there is change, there is also our “reaction” to the change.  You can call this a psychological reaction, or an “internal” reaction. But, we do react.  And, frequently, not all that well.

In the midst of our reactions, we are in a moment of “transition.”  William Bridges wrote and consulted and spoke on surviving and managing these transitions.  Here’s the summary of his key insight:

Transition consists of these three (predictable) phases;
#1 — letting go of the past,
#2 — the “neutral zone,” where the past is gone but the new isn’t fully present,
#3 — making the new beginning.

I think his greatest insight comes from his “neutral zone” observation – that period which comes between the old and the new.  From the book:

The neutral zone is a nowhere between two somewheres, and while you are in it, forward motion seems to stop while you hang suspended between was and will be.  (emphasis added).

He writes that this neutral zone can be a killer to morale and productivity and forward progress.

I will be writing more about this soon, as I finish reading the book.  But, I have a couple of observations to share now:

Observation 1 – I think we are living in a prolonged neutral zone time.

Everything seems to be in an almost perpetual in-between state.  We are all waiting – waiting for what Congress will do this Fall, waiting for the next Apple event (that old iPhone is already a few months old – we’re ready for the next one), waiting for the next new leader/CEO/manager/boss, and/or the next new rollout or initiative.  Waiting… always waiting.

And companies and organizations are changing leaders, initiatives, directions, at ever faster paces.

In such an era, so many of us seem to be suspended in some kind of exceptionally prolonged neutral zone. And this sense of “constant uncertainty” can be really unsettling.  It’s as though we have been fully uprooted, and yet don’t know what’s next.  And this is tough to deal with.  But (see the Chinese proverb above), naming it does seem to settle us just a little.

Observation 2 – Those “soft skills/emotional intelligence/psychological” aspects of life, and especially work, are really important.

I recently read this terrific article in the New York Times:  Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? by Jennifer Kahn.  Ms. Kahn describes creative education approaches that very clearly point to “yes, emotional intelligence can be taught.”

Work is not just metrics and formulas and checklists.  Work is done by real people, and if you place too much uncertainty in their path, their effectiveness is going to suffer.  In other words, we have to deal with the human issues of human beings in the workplace.  (At lease, until Spock or the robots replace us all).  So, as people let go of the old, and wait for the new, they need…  help.  Real, human, help.  Psychological help.  And that help is going to have to come from a village full of leaders and managers and colleagues and peers who have developed those soft skill, emotional intelligence traits.

William Bridges provides the framework for such help.

So, in your life, and at your workplace, be aware of those neutral zone moments/periods.  Don’t be surprised when people seem a little “uneasy and uncertain.”  They seem that way because they are uneasy and uncertain.

Help people through these transitions.  Starting with yourself.


(Note:  I am a fairly avid book reader, but, not for the first time, I thank Dan Weston, business consultant par excellence, for pointing me to the work of William Bridges.  I had heard of Mr. Bridges, but had never gotten around to reading his work.  I have now.  I should have done so earlier.)



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