The Secrets of Our Minds: Secret #1 – The Psychology of Change


The Secrets of Our Minds: Secret #1 – The Psychology of Change



Hi, I’m Astrid and I’m an organisational psychologist. In psychology, we study human behaviour extensively. In this series, I’m going spill the beans on some of the psychological secrets behind our behaviour. Please use it for good…

I have never walked into an organisation where people didn’t agree with the notion that we live in a changing world. And that for a company to survive, or even thrive in that changing world, it needs to (continue to) evolve and change. We all understand this rationally.

Keeping up, or staying ahead, means embracing change.

I have also never walked into an organisation where, as a result of understanding this notion, everyone enthusiastically embraced proposed new change initiatives. Even when the case for change is crystal clear. Explaining the need for change doesn’t necessarily result in changing how people feel about change. Change and resistance go hand in hand. Even when a company does everything right, such as providing lots of communication about the change, creating and communicating a ‘burning platform’, making the case for change crystal clear, the list goes on and includes all the typical change management checkboxes being ticked off, change is still not readily accepted. Here’s why.

From a psychological perspective, going through change means going through a transition. A transition is the inner process you go through when you come to terms with a change as you let go of how things used to be and redirect yourself to the way that things are now.

It is a 3 phase inner process (described perhaps best by William Bridges), and it starts rough. Have you ever, for example, changed jobs for the better, but found yourself feeling bad on your last days, even though you knew this was the right decision for you and you were looking forward to leaving? You felt this because a transition starts with an ending. Whether you are faced with change you want, or whether the change is pushed onto you (like many organisational changes), transitioning starts with losing something, resulting in feelings of anxiety and feelings of loss. You are losing some bad stuff, but also some good stuff. Going through this first phase of the psychological transition can be confusing. Feelings of loss can result in doubts about the change. I feel so bad – does this mean the change is a mistake? A transition, even if it is the result of the best, the most exciting change in the world, starts with losing something.

Here are Bridges’ three transitioning phases, together with some broad management strategies:

  1. Phase 1: An Ending. During this phase, people let go of the inner connections they have with the way things were. There are feelings of loss, fear, anger and uncertainty. Emotions and losses need to be acknowledged. If this doesn’t happen successfully during this phase, then this will result in unnecessary increases in resistance throughout the change process. Allow time for people to grieve, to accept the change, and to let go. Acknowledge that there is loss! Explain how their skills and experiences are critical in the new environment. Take away uncertainties through open communication.
  2. Phase 2: The Neutral Zone. This is the phase that bridges the old reality to the new. People can feel a bit lost, resentful towards the change, and feel a loss of identity or status related to the old situation. There is often scepticism towards the change initiative. Encourage people to continue to discuss their feelings, and give them strong direction. Give frequent feedback on their performance and make sure you set goals that allow for quick wins. This phase is incredibly important. It is where there is real opportunity for creativity and development.
  3. Phase 3: A New Beginning. During this phase people will feel positive, they’ll have lots of energy and will be open to learning. Continue to manage this phase closely. People can fall back into old habits. Celebrate wins, communicate success stories and continue to set goals relating to the change.

Understanding the transitioning process, the psychological effects of change and how change makes people feel in each phase, is essential in managing it successfully. Transition management is a critical, often overlooked component of any change management plan.

If you would like to chat about the psychological side of change management, I’d love to hear from you: After all, innovation is all about change. See the next part here.

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