Demystifying the Psychological Barriers of Transitioning

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Demystify the stress of transitions with this easy to remember framework. This people-centred approach will help you spot dysfunctional aspects within your organisational design and give you actionable processes that clarify the challenges around mental health, productivity, engagement and leadership during change.

Understanding why people respond differently to change starts by understanding the difference between change and transition.

The relentless speed of change and the number of transitions companies ask of people is only increasing. Understanding the psychological barriers to change is critical to ensure it doesn’t undermine wellbeing and performance. In this blog, I’m going to share a simple framework that will allow you a greater understand of these natural barriers and discuss options you can take to nullify them.

It all starts by understanding that change and transition are two different things. The difference is subtle but important, particularly when trying to understand the barriers to efficient and effective change:

Change is external; it’s something that happens within your environment. It’s an event which you can generally pinpoint the time it happened, and it occurs even if you disagree with it, e.g. a new boss, a change in role or a new IT system.

Transition is internal; it’s your psychological response to change – how you think about, engage and respond to change. Change can happen relatively quickly, whereas transition can be a much slower process of adaption.

Understanding Transition Stress

I am going to use the 5R’s of transition framework to help you understand some of the underlying causes of stress that occur during change. The 5R’s include:

  1. Routines
  2. Reactions
  3. Roles
  4. Relationships
  5. Self-Reflections

Not everyone in your team will respond the same way to each of the R’s and not all will openly nor immediately demonstrate the negative impact of change on their engagement, productivity, leadership, and wellbeing. There will be plenty that do though, and you are probably beginning to notice the signs within your organisation.

Routines

  • Provide structure and certainty.
  • They act as buffers to stress.
  • They are the first thing to be disrupted when “old” changes to new.
  • Right now, they are blurred and uncertain.

Routines guide behaviour. When change happens, people typically want to default to their daily habits and routines because they act as buffers to stress and give them certainty about the ways things work.

Unfortunately, routines are usually among the first things to get disrupted as the ‘new’ replaces the ‘old.’ What may become apparent without realising is that with the old routines gone, agitation and uncertainty replace clarity and direction. If you are not careful stress, negative emotions, paralysis or resistant behaviour follows.

Tips

  • Maintain old routines where possible: This includes personal as well as team and organisational.
  • Be proactive in establishing new ones and keep to them: You will have to develop new routines. The more you can pre-empt them, and the longer you give people to process the new routines before they kick in the better.
  • Avoid establishing new routines, only to change them regularly.
  • Communicate any new routines and give people the time & space to process them.
  • Resist the urge to micro-manage other people. Give your people time and space to process the changes. When there is uncertainty managers naturally try to gain control where they can – this can lead to micromanagement, so be aware that it can easily happen. 
  • Ask people what times they need to protect: Given the uncertainty and constant changes to routines, some of your people may have both regular and intermittent appointments they can’t shift. Be proactive and ask them if they have times they want to protect before establishing any new routines.

Reactions

People’s reactions to change can be surprising. Reactions can be unexpected and stressful without them realising it. These unusual reactions influence how they see themselves. Confidence plummets and high levels of uncertainty creep in as people begin to question their abilities. As a result, it’s not unusual for people to withdraw from some situations to minimise any negative feedback or even adopt a critical attitude towards the new environment they find themselves in.

Tips

  • Remember to focus on strength to overcome doubt and uncertainty: Focus on communicating what teams and people are good at and what has gone well.
  • Be clear & consistent in your communication: Including communicating your needs without being aggressive.
  • Talk about what bothers you: Be human and give people permission to talk. Take the insights and act on them.
  • Make an extra effort to reduce social & emotional triggers in both yourself & the people around you.

Roles

  • Roles form part of people’s identity.
  • All it takes is a 15% change in a role for someone to feel like they are in a new position.
  • Changes of role can lead people to question themselves at a deep level.
  • People are having to blend roles which leads to stress and uncertainty.

Roles are a part of people’s identity, and they often define themselves by their roles. A small change of only 15% can lead that person to see themselves in a new role and lead themselves to ask “who am I”?

Amend a role, and the danger is that people lose purpose and meaning. They lose some of their identity and forget who they are.

With all the changes and uncertainly that the world currently finds itself in, roles within a workplace are constantly changing. This will cause people to stress as transitions like these often require a new way of thinking and new ways of doing things.

Tips

  • Gain a deeper understanding of who you are, your strengths and your values to help you see your identity beyond your role.
  • Treat any transition (especially the big ones) as you would a new hire: Sit down and have 1:1 conversations with your team members. Provide clarity & certainty on roles & responsibilities. Be clear on performance expectations, your availability and typical responsiveness.
  • What are the new team norms? Communicate them and give people time to adapt.
  • Talk about how you see things playing out.
  • Focus on outcomes rather than hours worked. 

Relationships

  • Relationships are crucial to people’s wellbeing.
  • Positive, stable connections help maintain resilience.
  • Relationships can change during transitions.

Relationships rule the world, and it’s often said that the quality of one’s relationships can judge the quality of one’s life. Positive, supportive and satisfying relationships with others promote wellbeing, teamwork and objective focus during stressful or challenging situations. 

Transitioning affects relationships in various ways. Creating potential for either ostracising or dismissing others or thriving together through shared experiences and solutions. Good relationships promote confidence, reassurance and satisfaction during times of change, whilst negative relationships can result in worry, guilt and a sense of loss. 

Skills to build new relationships and maintain healthy and trusting existing ones is key to resilient transitions.

Tips

  • Be proactive in building connection: Promote team days and relationship building exercises. These don’t have to involve outside hires. Just give people the chance to connect at a personal rather than professional level.
  • Keep the dialogue open: No matter what.
  • Create permission for people to see you as human. Share the common experience.
  • Magnify strength in others. Not a weakness.

Reflections – about ourselves

  • Transitions can change the way people see themselves.
  • Make people start to question what’s important to them.
  • Cause a range of emotions about the new environment.

Transitions often change the way people think about themselves. People’s beliefs and values may become more pronounced during change without them even realising it. Changes can cause people to ask themselves questions about where they belong, their purpose and meaning or how they feel. They may experience a range of emotions towards the new environment and the way it is affecting them.

Tips

  • People’s values may become more pronounced as they realise what’s important to them. Invest in 1:1 conversations with your team and engage in coaching conversations to help them move forward.
  • Accept you can’t control everything: Not everyone will respond to changes the way you want them to. Provide help where you can and demonstrate good behaviour.
  • Reassure each other that this is all perfectly normal to feel stressed.

The obvious & essential

There are several processes that you can focus on. Although they sound simple and obvious, they are essential to consider, given the current climate.

  1. Focus on creating more certainty by removing uncertainty. Be proactive and put measures in place to support the challenges that people experience when transitioning. Increase both contact and communication with your team and be human. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings with them. Noone is finding this easy, even if they do try and put a brave face on it. 
  2. Transition is slow, so reactions come out of the blue – heard of the “COVID Coaster?”
  3. Ask people what times do they need to protect.
  4. Treat transition as you would a new hire. Be clear on performance expectations, availability and responsiveness. What are the latest team norms?
  5. Experience the “new norm” for a few weeks and then reflect and discuss the experiences as a team.
  6. Use the 5R’s framework in a discussion. Have individual rank which R they are most concerned with, or they feel will likely affect them the most. Use this to build prioritised lists of actions each individual can take to manage transition stress.

One final analogy

Imagine everyone in the world was given a car but not shown how to drive:

  1. Some people would get in nonetheless and disappear into the sunset with no issues whatsoever; Their only problem will be with how the others get on and their behaviour may cause a few others to have a few bumps along the route.
  2. Some people will get in the car, drive off into the sunset and experience some bumps and scrapes along the way.
  3. Some people will get into the car full of anxiety and stress. They will take a while to get to their destination and will probably have some bumps along the way, but they will get there eventually.
  4. Some people will be so anxious they won’t get into the car.

The point is that most people will need some help to transition through change. If no support is given – don’t expect people to transition quickly or without incident. Impacting welling, productivity, engagement and culture.

Bringing it all together

Our capacity to build and maintain resilience is fundamental to successful transitioning and dealing with change. In times of unpredictability, stability and certainty break down as our routines are disrupted, our reactions become extreme and intense, our relationships change, roles shift. We experience a potentially unfamiliar and new sense of identity. Such changes can be overwhelming and therefore make dealing with change difficult.

Results from the webinar we have run to 100’s of people using 5R’s as a framework for discussion:

Q. Which ‘R’ are you most concerned with or feel will likely affect you the most?

A.
• Routines. 36%
• Reactions 19%
• Roles 14%
• Relationships 17%
• Reflections 14%

Please note: The 5Rs of Culture Change was created by Kate Berardo of Culturosity and was featured in her book Building Cultural Competence.

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