What’s The Difference Between Transition and Change? As it turns out, a great deal – although they may seem similar.

Let me talk you through the distinction between the two, and explain how knowing and acting on this important knowledge could be the key to unlocking a healthier, happier workplace.

As you’re no doubt aware, I write about change on a regular basis; how it affects our work, personal and emotional lives, and how it can be compared to grief (which we’ll come back to. Also, the often non-linear and complex psychological stages that employees can go through when moving from one phase to another in the change process.

Most, if not all of my work as a leadership development consultant involves change in some way.

That is, not only helping leaders like you to implement and manage it, but also through equipping you with the most appropriate managerial tools to enable you to do so.

It’s not that easy. Why? Because organisations are made up of people, and people are complicated. Knowing the fundamentals within change management is key. And, equally important: to recognise the distinct difference between what we define as change, and what we generally understand as transition.

This article refers to the Bridges’ Transition Model (William Bridges) and the Change or Grief Curve, (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross).

Firstly, why is this a significant matter in general? Why does it matter?

Change – Often, Regular and Inevitable

In organisations, for sustainability and growth, change has to happen. It must.

Advances in technology, an extremely competitive marketplace, and a drive for development all lead to change.

Examples could include an organisational re-structure, a leadership team re-organisation, redundancies, an office move, mergers and acquisitions – almost anything that upsets the employee applecart, you could say.

We prefer stability, even if the status quo may not be serving us as well as it should. And, we distrust change. ‘Twas ever thus.

Change will come at you, and, like an unwelcome seasonal relative, also land at the doorstep of your staff. It’s part and parcel of organisational life. Let’s examine this in more detail:


Broadly defined, and in this context, change is something that is done to us, rather than something we actively embrace. It comes from somewhere or someone else, and has been decided by The Powers that Be. Examples could include an employee being faced with a different job role, a department re-structure, moving to a new department, or even a different location.

This type of change is rarely, if ever accepted with unalloyed joy and enthusiasm. The opposite, in fact. You’ve most likely been there yourself, as I have.

In fact, in your role as a leader or senior manager, you may yourself have been tasked with implementing change. Here, you have no agency. No choice. This is what you need to do, and please proceed forthwith to do it.  

However, are you really buying into it?

Observe your own body language, your tone of voice and your facial expressions when asking others to make changes that not only have you NOT experienced yourself, you also may disagree with.

It will show. Will it work? Most likely, no.

The Problem

Not only do people resist change, it’s no exaggeration to state that they start to mourn.

Your team may go through what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross succinctly describes as a grief curve, which I’ve referenced in a previous article: a series of often-challenging emotional phases or stages that align closely to personal loss. These points aren’t necessarily neatly ordered – one after the other, and so on. But, they can eventually lead to acceptance, and even something much more positive: welcoming the same series of changes that were so strenuously resisted just a few short months ago.

Transition – The Solution to the Problem?

Transition comes from within.

It’s an internal rather than an external process.

It’s what goes through people’s minds as they go through transformations at work.  And, unlike change, which often lands on us like a ton of bricks, it’s a slower-burn process that moves from one phase to another.

For a successful adjustment, you should also go through your own personal transition. Without blind acceptance, generating healthy discussion and debate with your team could be the key to unlocking a way forwards.

You have to understand how people are feeling as they go through change. Why? For you to guide them through it, and for them to accept and support it.

Here, we’re touching the Bridges’ Transition Model, an effective yet contrasting complement to the grief curve.

What is the Bridges Transition Model?

Developed just over 30 years ago by William Bridges, the following three areas are the bedrock to transition:

  1. Ending, losing and letting go

In other words, resistance, emotional upset and upheaval. Your team is losing something they care passionately about (which, to be fair can be a positive sign).

Encouraging people to talk about their memories and what they’re proud of having achieved could help them move to the next stage.

  1. The Neutral Zone

Perhaps your staff are impatient, unsure, confused or frustrated at this time.  Depending on how well you’re managing the change, they may experience a higher workload than usual as the new ways of working start to kick in.

In this often-uncomfortable phase, your guidance will be essential. It could be a time for innovation and inspiring creativity. Renewal, even. Setting short term goals and offering feedback could make you the leader your team needs, and deserves.

  1. The New Beginning

Acceptance, energy, excitement. Your employees are building new skills, and they’re reaping the rewards for all their hard work. They’re open to learning, and are newly committed.

Success. But don’t push people too fast. Celebrate the change and reward your team as appropriate but avoid complacency, linking their personal goals to longer-term organisational objectives to keep them grounded.

In a Nutshell…

These key stages are all about the self, and the very real, human feelings that we all have. Also, the internal dialogues that employees will have with themselves, and how they transition from resistance through to enthusiasm by themselves – yet with your support.

Are you ready for transition?

At each stage, always be aware of the process that YOU are going through, not least how the model relates to your own personal experience. As I often say, businesses are purely made up of people. And people are the stars of your show, capable of achieving more than they know.

And now? You just have to make it happen.

To read more of my articles on change, click here.

You may also find this article on the Bridge’s Transition Model useful.

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