The Neutral Zone

Updated: Mar 21



As discussed before, there is often a tough moment of reckoning when leaders realize a change hasn’t turned out as smooth as they imagined.


Leaders can often see the power of the change ahead. They see the promised land, and they assume that much of the work is identifying WHAT the change needs to be. They chose to expand into new regions. They identify virtual delivery solutions. Or they realize they need to reorganize teams and change roles.


The fundamental miss is that leaders don’t see that the decision is not the same thing as a change process. One is a change, the other is a transition. An organization doesn’t operate well at greater scale overnight. Creating a sense of connection in a virtual environment doesn’t happen organically (nor do the technological platforms simply materialize). And gelling as a new team doesn’t come easily either.


This may seem basic, but pause for a second and reflect. As a leader, when do you assume that people should simply shift their behavior? Or where do you assume that people will do what they are asked simply because you shared your rationale? Where do we give people a script and expect that they will automatically change?


Understanding that change is a process opens up a wealth of information for us as leaders. Last week we discussed how change leaders often miss an important human need when they stick to their default leadership styles. By understanding the journey people take through change, we can then empathize with the feelings that others have. We are attuned to their losses they experience, we realize how much they need clarity. How badly they want to see progress.


So when we come in and work with leaders, one of the first things that we do is to normalize what this transition process looks like. Our work is grounded in the frameworks by William Bridges. Today, we’ll use his Transitions Model to shine a light on what is often happening in the human experience of transitioning to the new.


The Three Phases of the Bridges’ Transitions Model


In his book Managing Transitions, William Bridges describes how there are three phases that occur in a transformation.

Endings

Some endings happen to us abruptly (the death of a loved one), some are our choice (moving to a new city means leaving behind the old), and some indirectly happen when we enter a new phase (becoming parents means the ending of the independence). For organizations who are choosing to shift, this is a phase of acknowledging “this isn’t working” and the beginning to do something different. Many endings are filled with some amount of sadness, fear, shock, or denial. Sometimes people will advocate to keep the status quo. Sometimes people won’t realize that they have experienced loss until they reckon with the challenges that come with new beginnings.


The Neutral Zone

This is the space in between the past we know and the new reality. Bridges uses the analogy of a kitchen renovation. In between the old kitchen and the new is a time where things are stripped down to their studs. The appliances are gone. And while we can imagine what is possible, we are living in a world of neither old nor the new. Understanding this phase is one of the most important elements of leading change. In this phase, we know that the old way of doing things isn’t going to work. But we don’t have new routines and muscle memory built in. We are unlearning and imagining all at the same time.

The Neutral Zone is a place of mixed emotions. Having confronted some of the losses already, the disorienting state of the Neutral Zone is often filled with grappling for a sense of stability, competence, and clarity. So our colleagues going through the Neutral Zone will understandably show signs of frustration and skepticism at times, and they may be overwhelmed and anxious about what is in store.


But the Neutral Zone can also be a place of great innovation, energy and engagement. Stripped from the trappings of the past, people get real with what really matters in the moment. They look inward, tapping their values and creativity. And they may hold hands and collaborate to figure things out. These times can be marked by heartfelt conversations, exciting aha’s, and energizing innovations.


While the Neutral Zone can have some beautiful highs and challenging lows, it’s also important to note that a lot of progress in this phase isn’t glamorous. Navigating the Neutral Zone often means that we are taking steps on what is ahead of us. It’s living on the faith and possibility while not seeing the direct payoff yet. It’s managing through the mundane and celebrating the small, incremental shifts.


New Beginnings

It’s important to understand that the Neutral Zone isn’t the end destination. We can celebrate progress and take steps to stabilize our new beginnings as we realize what we are shooting for. New beginnings come first in glimmers of what is possible. At some point, we are firmly acclimated to the new way of doing things. Rarely is there an official milestone that helps us to know that we are officially transitioned into a new chapter. Rather, each step through the Neutral Zone is one step closer to the new world emerging. Bit by bit, momentum builds. People capitalize on opportunities and find the victories along the way. The new chapter has moments of celebration and exhilaration as we see that we are achieving what is possible. And we recommit ourselves to continuing to fine tune and adjust what is ahead.


Supporting along the whole journey


Once we understand what the transition looks like for our people, we can weave intentional supports to help them navigate along the way. For example:


Allow for endings.

Sometimes we can think that we don’t have time to discuss what is ending. But the truth is, unresolved endings play out as resistance, grieving, or shoulder-shrugging compliance. We’ve found that helping people to have a voice in a new future is an important part of helping them to believe they can let go of the past.


Normalize the discomfort of the Neutral Zone.

This doesn’t mean we can’t help things go smoothly, but there just is a discomfort that comes from uncertainty and insecurity. We can bring compassion to that, and as we do so, we can hold lightly the doubts that might arise. We can differentiate natural fear from true distress. And we can attend to the care we need to give ourselves and others when things are in flux.


Get concrete about what is evolving.

We can often attribute resistance to laziness or a lack of motivation. But by understanding how the Neutral Zone is a phase of unlearning and re-imagining, we can see that part of our role as leaders is about excavating the beliefs and assumptions that might hold us back, and it’s about nurturing new habits and skills that will support our new way of being.


Balance planning with innovating.

We’ve seen some leaders try to plan their way out of the Neutral Zone and find themselves (and their teams) frustrated when their plans don’t turn out as they hoped. We’ve seen other leaders surrender to the Neutral Zone and never take any set of steps to get out. Their staff are often confused and disenchanted as they never feel like they are progressing. There is a balance in between this - where leaders sketch out a general direction, plan the short term with rigor and intentionality, and leave space for innovation and learning together.


Orient and celebrate far more than you think is necessary.

To borrow an analogy from the Heath brothers, leading is often like we are tapping along to music that only we can hear. It seems clear and obvious to ourselves, but sometimes others need help catching the tune. You may know how this meeting connects with the past, but others may forget. Or they may not see how the momentum is generating. Despite the best efforts of our people, they need reminders of where they are headed and how they are getting there. And your job is to narrate the story the whole group is taking to get there.


Putting this into action


Discussing a framework like this can seem academic. Next week, we’ll dive into the specific actions that change leaders can take in stewarding transitions. But we pause here to say that leaders will ignore the lessons of the Transitions Model at their own peril. There isn’t a guarantee that the curve will shift and new beginnings will come. Often, the Neutral Zone becomes a purgatory of cynicism and half hearted compliance. At its worst, people spin and lash out in the Neutral Zone, and org culture spirals downward.


We bring the faith that your story can be different. That your demonstrations of empathy and support - all with an eye pointing to the future - are going to resonate deeply with your team.


We invite you to ask:

  • Where are your team members right now on the curve? What does that mean they might need from you?

  • What are the losses they may face with endings?

  • How might you be oversimplifying the change in mindsets, behaviors, and skills that will be a part of your change?

  • Where do you need to flex your leadership to help them change?


Interested in learning more about the practical steps of leading inclusive change? Join us for our foundational workshop series, Leading Inclusive Change.


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