Leadership in Practice

By Kathy Miller on April 7th, 2013

Managing The Personal Side Of Change

By Virginia Major Ph.D.

In order to survive, if not thrive, during these tough times, leaders are working hard to transform their organizations. Unfortunately, we know that too few of these efforts will succeed. One major reason is that employees, at a personal level, don’t adjust the way they think, act or feel enough to embrace the new way of doing things. (Duck, 1998) As Bridges (2003) noted, change is an event – the merger of two companies, the sale of a business unit or the adoption of new technology. The difficult behind-the-scenes work is the transition – the personal and psychological process of moving from the old to the new.

Whether you are a senior executive, manager, or front line supervisor, you can’t afford to ignore this personal side of change. The success of any change initiative depends on how well you manage it. For the last 30 years, we have been helping leaders at all levels through what Bridges describes as the three phases of transition: “the ending,” “the neutral zone,” and “the new beginning.” Below we offer a summary of practical tips and techniques that we have found most useful for each phase.

Phase One: Helping People Accept “The Ending”

Before people can realize a new beginning, they must end what used to be. In this phase, leaders must help people let go of the old reality and the security it offered. How can you best do this?

First consider who is likely to lose what in this change. These losses may be intangible, such as the comfort of knowing “the way things are at work”, or concrete, as in the loss of colleagues through downsizing. Recognize these losses. Create forums, informal or formal, for people to express their emotions without censure. Acknowledge those emotions with sympathy and understanding and express your own feelings when appropriate.

Be prepared to give information often through newsletters, town halls, meetings and discussions. People going through transition need a constant flow of accurate information. Good communication can quiet anxiety, avoid confusion and squelch rumors. Be as specific as possible about what is to be left behind and what will stay, what employees need to continue doing and what they should stop.

Honor the past. While it is critical to emphasize the positive side of change, the pain of endings is lessened somewhat when the loss is marked in some way such as through a recognition ceremony. Explain how the “new” helps preserve something of the old. People may be more willing to make sacrifices if they believe change will help save some valued part of their organization.

Phase Two: Leading People Through “The Neutral Zone”

This phase is limbo, when the old is gone but the new is not yet accepted or comfortable. Old certainties break down and everything seems up in the air. Rumors and misinformation abound. People feel disoriented. At the same time, if managed well, this stage is fertile ground for new ideas. Old habits are being changed, and the period of upheaval is ripe for innovation. There are ways you can help guide your people successfully through this phase.

With frequent communication, remind people that it’s normal to feel uneasy and confused. This is a time for understanding and support. Regular meetings, Q&A sessions, and social gatherings break down isolation and reduce anxiety. Encourage employees by offering opportunities for them to observe and hear from other individuals and teams who have experienced similar, successful, changes. Reassure employees through clear and up-to-date communication that keeps people feeling connected and on the same page. The message is: “This is where we’re headed. We’re all in it together and we’ll get through it, together.”

Help reduce uncertainty and ambiguity by providing a simple plan for the change. Specify any modifications in policies, procedures, and roles.

Provide access to the training people need. Employees will feel frustrated and angry if they are expected to do things they don’t yet know how to do. Tap into the creative aspects of this phase by encouraging people to experiment as they work to achieve short-term, attainable goals. Recognize “small wins” to restore employees’ confidence (Kotter, 1996).

Phase Three: A “New Beginning”

Even as people increasingly accept the “new way,” you need to encourage continued movement forward.

  • Continue to communicate the vision and ways to get there—over and over and in multiple ways.
  • Watch out for inconsistency. Actions that conflict with messages leave employees feeling skeptical and damage trust. Hold managers and supervisors accountable for “walking the talk.”
  • Ensure employees have easy access to technical assistance, such as on call experts, as they try out new skills and behaviors.
  • Reinforce efforts by continuing to reward small successes, while tolerating the mistakes that are inevitable early on.
  • Just as “the ending” was observed, plan to celebrate the “new beginning” once it seems in place.

Leaders typically focus on the strategic, operational, and technological aspects of change. Yet a host of psychological changes must occur in each individual employee in order to realize leaders’ vision of a new organization. By adopting the techniques described above, most of which are straightforward and relatively easy to put into practice, you will be doing your part to guide people through the challenges of transition and towards a successful “new beginning.”


Bridges, W. (2003) Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change
2nd ed. Da Capo Press

Duck, J. D. (1998) Managing Change. Harvard Business Review on Change
Harvard Business School Press

Kotter, J. P. (1996) Leading Change
Harvard Business School Press

Kathy Miller, Ph.D. is President and Founder of Miller Consultants, Inc. For nearly 30 years, she has helped clients such as Toyota Motor, IBM, Brown-Forman, and Shell Oil with the leadership and organizational performance challenges of an ever-changing competitive arena. She can be reached at:

Virginia (Ginny) Smith Major, Ph.D. is a Consultant and Executive Coach at Miller Consultants, Inc. Ginny has broad expertise in organizational change management leadership coaching, talent management, and work-life integration. She can be reached at: