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Transitions: managing personal and organisational change

Dai Williams, Eos Career Services
First published in the ACDM Newsletter, April 1999, links updated 14 January 2008

  1. Introducing transitions
  2. Personal life changes
  3. The transition cycle
  4. How can we manage our own transitions?
  5. Effects of work & organisational changes on staff
  6. Transition management
  7. Current and future transitions

1. Introducing transitions

Have you, your family or friends had any major changes in your work or personal life in the past year? Or do you plan and manage changes for your staff and organisation? If so you are likely to be well aware of the hazards and opportunities of coping with change and the process psychologists call transition, although you may not know it by this name.

Transitions affect us all, up to 10-20 times in our lifetime after major life-events. Coping with change has been a fundamental survival issue for millennia. So human beings have evolved a remarkable mechanism for adapting to trauma and changes. Small changes can be overcome by learning. Larger changes may challenge our identity and involve letting go of deeply held hopes or beliefs.

Transitions enable us to make fundamental changes to how we see the world and respond creatively to our new reality, good or bad. They happen spontaneously. But because they take 6-12 months or more to work through most people are unaware of the process.

Transitions offer crucial opportunities for personal and career development – the human equivalent of animals that have to shed their skins to grow. But they also involve a hazardous phase that can go wrong. The transition process offers a template for understanding the stages of personal change. We cannot avoid this process but we can learn how to make the best of it for our work and personal life.(1)

2. Personal Life Changes

One way to learn about transitions is to reflect on your own life events. You can do this in about half an hour with pencil and paper by drawing a "Life-line". You can try this on the Eos Life-Line exercise (PDF file).

Think back over your life so far; recall some of your best experiences and when they happened and then do the same for times of disappointment or distress. Note good times or events above the chart and difficult ones below it. Then draw a line to reflect how you felt from your earliest memories up to now, going up for the good times and down for difficult ones.

If you look back at the high and low points see what other events happened in the year before and after them. Try to remember what turning points helped you to recover from the low periods, how you felt and what you did when things got better. You can draw a more detailed line for the last 3 years if you have had recent changes, or for any other period which had a lot of ups and downs.

3. The Transition Cycle

The stages of transition were first recognised in the 60’s in studies of bereavement. In the 70’s it was realised that this process may be triggered by any major life event, good or bad, in work as well as personal life eg in a new job or after redundancy. The same process also accounts for the "survivor syndrome" – loss of morale in organisations a few months after large scale changes eg re-organisations, redundancies or take-overs.

Figure 1: The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change (Williams, 99)
{The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change}

The several phases of transition are shown in Figure 1. These involve predictable hazards, but can also lead to major opportunities. Initial reactions depend on whether the event was good or bad. But after 3-4 months inner contradictions develop between our old view of the world, or what we expected to happen, and the new situation. The issues are usually too deep to recognise eg feelings of betrayal after redundancy if we had given great loyalty to the organisation, or lost hopes for the future after separation or bereavement.

We may become irritable, then anxious or confused and lose confidence without knowing why. Stress and anxiety can develop into a personal transition crisis. If the contradictions affect deeply held beliefs they may de-stabilise other parts of our life. Trust betrayed in one situation may cast doubt on other relationships.

The main hazards of the crisis phase result from severe stress and failing to recognise beliefs that are no longer valid. This tension can lead to loss of sleep and hence fatigue, errors of judgement, loss of strategic thinking, accidents and indiscretions or "moments of madness". These put severe strains on work performance and personal relationships. There may be a strong urge to escape the situation – quitting jobs or relationships. If the situation is not recognised it may lead to nervous collapse needing several weeks of sick leave. If a whole team is in crisis this becomes evident in conflict and scapegoating.

Most individuals work through this crisis phase in a few weeks. Enabling factors include economic security, emotional support from family, friends and work colleagues, time for regular exercise and a supportive work environment. The key task to break out of the crisis phase is to identify and let go of hopes or beliefs that are no longer appropriate. To do this it helps to value good events before the change started and to re-affirm personal qualities and beliefs that are still important to us. This may happen in a "defining moment" which may include standing up for yourself on a point of principle.

For example a new relationship outside work may radically alter our life priorities so that overtime given freely (or demanded) before now imposes unacceptably on our personal time.

This may highlight unfairness in working practices that have been unquestioned for too long. Defining moments may look like rebellion to managers. But they may actually be valuable warnings in over-stressed organisations – one employee may be expressing an underlying concern that affects the morale and performance of many others.

Breaking out of a transition crisis is cathartic: an extended period of stress is released with a new sense of calm, well being and energy. Once our mind is freed up from strain it re-organises itself spontaneously within a few weeks. This recovery phase is an exciting process because we see the world more clearly. More accurate insights into the new reality help us to see new opportunities. Teams in recovery develop great energy and creativity. The recovery phase offers opportunities for personal development and starts a new life phase (check your lifeline for your own experiences of this). Seeing someone break out from crisis to recovery is like watching a flower open.

4. How can we manage our own transitions?

The problems of each phase give us clues to managing the effects of personal change:

5. Effects of work & organisational changes on staff

Work changes may be gradual or rapid. Some may be planned eg new jobs, promotion or re-organisation. Others may be imposed eg take-overs, lost contracts or redundancies. All changes involve learning. Some people thrive on new situations; others prefer to plan and prepare in advance.

If you can anticipate changes in your work, or for your staff, try to plan ahead and identify training or other resources that can help you and them to be prepared. Bridges' books are helpful.(2)

Before planning new work or organization changes it may be useful to review and audit previous ones. Which ones went well? Which caused problems? Are you or your colleagues still carrying unfinished business from previous changes? Each new change is an opportunity to make a fresh start and sometimes to resolve old issues as well.

The lifeline exercise often shows how changes at work can affect our personal life and vice versa. Many employers try to ignore the personal life of staff and expect them to perform much the same regardless of life outside work. But life cannot be separated from work if major changes happen in either area. As pressures increase on staff the "Life~work boundary" must be recognised and respected. This is usually recognised for events like marriage or birth of a child. But it also applies to separation, bereavement, new partners and re-location.

As a career counsellor the most common symptoms of career crisis that I see (e.g. sickness absence, scapegoating, poor performance, discipline, resignations and dismissal) occur during a transition period. But because transition crises usually occur several months after a major life event, individuals and their managers may not recognise connections between a recent change and problems at work.

These changes may arise from personal life-events, good or bad. Or they may result from work changes eg a new job, new boss or re-organisation. If employee performance appears to be deteriorating the first thing to check is whether they have experienced any major changes recently, before starting discipline or dismissal procedures. Disciplining an employee who is already in a personal crisis has a high risk of traumatising them, resulting in an extended crisis that could lead to extended periods of sickness absence for anxiety states or clinical depression.

Dismissing an employee in transition crisis often wastes a valuable member of staff who was likely to recover within a few weeks, and destroys the trust of other staff. In fact employees in the recovery phase of a transition (work or personal) are likely to be at their most creative and constructive, with more accurate perceptions of the current reality than "stable" staff who are still living by older values, or those still in crisis. As a career counsellor I see these staff recover and move on to transfer their skills and new insights to another employer, sometimes a competitor, within a few weeks.

The most serious issues for organisations occur when senior management teams are in transition, either because of new appointments or corporate changes. At this stage each individual manager may be going go through a personal transition, with the same hazards and opportunities described above for other staff. If the whole team is in transition together there may be severe conflict, with a risk of one or more managers being scapegoated and demoted or dismissed. Strategic errors of judgement in this phase may affect morale in the whole organisation.

This was illustrated in Parliament after the May 1997 Election Landslide. This was one of the most spectacular organisation changes in the UK in the last decade. 96% of old and new MPs won or lost their seats, or radically changed their roles in Parliament on the same day. After the honeymoon phase a succession of crises followed from October 97 to January 98, 6-8 months after the change. A number of ministers and MPs turned crises into defining moments leading to personal achievements from January 98 onwards and collective recovery by March 98.

[Update note: Another major crisis period for the UK Government occured from Feb - April 2000, forecast as a potential transition crisis period following the traumas of the Balkans war and devolution changes in 1999, see Accidents waiting to happen.]

6. Transition Management

At a symposium in January 1999 (3) Richard Plenty reported how Shell International recognised the importance of transition management several years ago. Shell now uses transition management training and policies worldwide. He stressed the distinction between organisation changes and the transitions that affect individual staff and managers. They are alert to the personal transitions started when staff are relocated to other countries. Employees are encouraged and trained to have personal career planning skills to develop options and career continuity for periods of frequent organisational change.

The basic issue for employers is to increase transition awareness among staff and managers at all levels. This enables individuals to be more alert to their own life changes that will not always be known to employers. It also enables managers to be more alert to the differing vulnerability of staff during periods of organisation change (if they also have personal life changes), and to make allowances for this.

The transition cycle provides a valuable addition to organisation and staff planning tasks. It alerts managers to potential periods of crisis for individuals or groups eg to provide additional support to surviving staff after redundancies to reduce the effects of survivor syndrome (loss of morale and resignations). The timing of the recovery phase also suggests windows of opportunity for more rapid and innovative changes. The much sought after goal of "transformation" in organisations is only likely to happen after a well supported recovery phase, typically a year or so after a major change has been initiated.

Perhaps the highest priority needs to be given to enabling top management teams to cope with their own transitions, and monitor carefully the decisions of new managers appointed at intermediate levels.

For large-scale changes management style needs to change at different phases of transition. While a firm, directive style may be appropriate to launch a change more tolerance and support is needed in later months. This is explained in Peter Herriot's recent book Trust in Transitions.(4)

Ideally a more democratic, consultative management style is needed to harness the creative potential of staff during the transition recovery phase or innovation will be stifled. Corporate agendas need to be open to review and change in this phase when managers and staff have clearer insights into the new reality.

Organisation culture is a major factor in transition management. Organisations going through major or frequent changes need to be particularly alert to life~work boundary issues for managers and staff. Organisations which expect staff to work under sustained high pressure risk losing good staff through stress, absence and resignation during periods of transition crisis, whether due to personal or organisation changes. High "control culture" organisations will inhibit the creativity of staff and managers in recovery phases. It follows that these organisations are unlikely ever to achieve real transformation of attitudes except perhaps by recruiting a new workforce.

Transition management has important implications for Human Resource policies and practices. Transitions, whether due to personal or work changes, offer an alternative interpretation to many poor performance and disciplinary situations. Informal review of recent events for under-performing staff is highly recommended before formal procedures are initiated. Mentor systems can help and referral for independent medical or counselling advice may be advisable.

Sickness absence policies may also need review. Policies that penalise staff in periods of crisis from taking a few days break may result in much longer periods of sickness absence. The provision for Family Crisis Leave in the new Fairness at Work Employment Bill is a wise move.

As transition management is introduced into UK organisations, both for managers and staff, employers will be better able to understand and support staff in periods of transition and development. Employers will benefit from more positive and innovative staff attitudes during periods of change. This is a win/win situation. It benefits family life for staff and reduces the costs and disruption of valuable staff otherwise lost to the organisation.

7. Current and future transitions

If you, or your staff, are currently in a period of transition you will probably recognise some of the issues covered here. I hope these explanations will give you some insights and encouragement.

Understanding the process of transition can enable us to feel more in control reducing fear, stress and inappropriate actions. If you encounter a crisis phase remember this can become a springboard for entering the recovery phase with all the new opportunities it brings.

Managers may keep the phases of the transition cycle in mind when planning projects, job or staff moves and future organisation changes. This reduces the risk of transition crises for staff occurring during critical business periods or operations.

Managing change is always an uncertain task. Scenario planning is one way to reduce uncertainty – by anticipating several alternative outcomes to a particular change. Contingency plans can be made accordingly.

One period of great uncertainty is the first quarter of the new Millennium. Some scenarios for that time include moderate to severe disruption. It may be desirable to minimise staff or organisational changes in the 3rd quarter of 1999 that may result in crisis periods for individuals or groups around 6 months later. [NB this paper was first published in April 99].

Being aware of the transition process does not stop it happening. Indeed it may be necessary for individuals to adjust to major changes. But transition awareness does help to understand the phases we are likely to go through so that we can act more appropriately, and help each other at each stage.

Stress is rated as one of the highest causes of ill health in UK organisations. But stress is only a symptom of other problems. From work with over 400 clients transitions are one of the most severe and least recognised sources of stress and career crisis. They affect all staff on average every three years, more often at certain life stages. Multiple transitions destabilise even the strongest personalities for a while (including world leaders). But transitions also provide some of the greatest opportunities for personal and organisation development.

Specialist resources are available for individuals and organisations who are involved in transitions or who wish to learn more about transition management. Some occupational health and human resource staff can advise individuals or recommend private transition counsellors. Some occupational psychologists like Eos specialise in transition management strategies and techniques for employers.

Transition awareness may be important for the whole population during the Millennium transition next year. But its first application is to help us understand our past and present life changes better and then to encourage those around us to manage their transitions too.


1. Williams D Life events & career change: transition psychology in practice. Brit.Psych.Soc. Symposium, Jan 1999.
2. Bridges W (1995) Managing transitions Nicholas Brealey
3. Williams D (1999) Human responses to change in the journal Futures Vol 31 (6) August 99, 609-616
4. Herriot P, Hirsh W and Reilly P (1998) Trust and Transition. Wiley

Thank you for visiting the Eos life~work resource centre.
You can email comments to Dai Williams at eosuk@btinternet.com

© Eos Career Services 2001
links updated 14 January 2008

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