Managing transition during the ‘Great Resignation’
Much has been written about the ‘Great Resignation’ that began in 2021 and looks set to continue this year. As we highlighted in a recent blog post, almost a quarter of UK workers are planning to change jobs and transition within the next 3-6 months. This has raised questions about the reasons people are resigning in such large numbers. Furthermore, how to retain staff in such a competitive marketplace. But the issue that’s been on my mind is how the Great Resignation is affecting people. What emotions do people go through when they resign? Can change ever feel comfortable? And how can we prepare ourselves for success in a new role?
‘It isn’t the changes that will do you in; it’s the transitions.’ – William and Susan Bridges.
Change vs transition
First, we need to be clear about the difference between change and transition. Change is usually something external – an event or a situation that we find ourselves in. The pandemic is the most obvious example of this and has completely changed the way we live and work. A transition, on the other hand, is something internal – a psychological process people go through as they move from one state to another (the Latin root of the word transition is transire, which means to ‘go across’).
Bridges’ three phases of transition
In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (1980), organisational consultant William Bridges identified three phases that people experience as they ‘go across’. He called these ‘Endings’, ‘The Neutral Zone’ and ‘New Beginnings’. These phases can happen in sequence or (more usually) overlap and happen concurrently. As someone who resigned in 2021 and changed their job, company and country of work here are my own reflections on moving through the phases:
From my late twenties to my early forties, I lived and worked in Asia. Along the way, I got married and moved from being an individual contributor to a people manager. My transition began with the ending of this chapter of my life, as I made the decision to return to the UK to be closer to family. But letting go wasn’t easy. I had to say goodbye to a job that I loved and colleagues who I trusted deeply. I also left behind an intimate understanding of my team and organisation. Luckily, the fact that I was familiar with Bridges’ theory helped me to anticipate the feeling of loss that I felt. As Bridges states: ‘The failure to identify and get ready for endings and losses is the largest difficulty for people in transition.’
This middle phase, as the title suggests, is a kind of in-between time. When the old is gone but the new hasn’t arrived yet. Bridges use words like ‘limbo’, ‘no-man’s land’ and ‘wilderness’ to characterise this phase. As these words suggest, this phase can feel unsettling, but it can also be a time of great renewal. I felt this when I returned to the UK in the middle of winter. There was an element of reverse culture shock and getting used to dark afternoons and English humour. More challenging was getting to grips with a new role and trying to connect with my new colleagues while working from home. To my surprise, though, I also found being in the neutral zone exhilarating. With no ‘baggage’ I could decide who I wanted to be and how I wanted to operate in my new reality.
In the neutral zone, the pieces are in flux, and it can be hard to see how things will cohere. But eventually, they do. When you sense that shape and order are returning this is a good sign. One that you might be entering Bridges’ third phase of transition. For me, it was feeling a sense of connection to where my new organisation was heading, and the part I could play in helping them get there. This isn’t to say that I never miss the warmth and great food of Asia. Nor feel anxious about my contribution at work. But having a sense of purpose and a clear idea of what the future might hold are signs that the new beginning has arrived.
Transitioning to a new world of work
The Great Resignation may turn out to be the pandemic’s silver lining. The mass movement of people across organisations and industries. It shows that we’ve begun to ask some important questions about the place of work in our lives and how we can thrive, rather than just survive, at work. I think all of us, whether we’re thinking about resigning or not, are currently in one giant Neutral Zone. We are exhausted from the shared trauma that we’ve experienced. We are unsure about the future but also full of excitement about the possibilities of this moment of transition has created. Whatever we feel – Bridges’ Transition Model can support us along the way.