The Power of the Neutral Zone

Carolyn Cullen
Friday, June 9, 2017

I recently read William Bridges’ Managing Transitions and co-facilitated a workshop with Bryan Garey on change and transitions for a cohort program I manage. In the book, Bridges talks about how change is transactional but transitions are psychological. He introduces a model that may seem paradoxical on the surface; namely, that transitions always start with an ending and end with a beginning. This premise makes sense when you think about it: a change, especially a transformational one, always starts by stopping the current practice and ends by starting the new. Furthermore, the ending represents a loss, including how people knew they were successful and how they were rewarded, and therefore it must be acknowledged and processed.

In between the ending and the beginning is the neutral zone, which is the land of the most opportunity, according to Bridges, and therefore is a powerful step in the transition process. This zone occurs after most of the loss has been acknowledged and processed, and the impact of the beginning is just starting to take shape. It’s when people can either start to get excited about the change or it’s when they decide they must resist the change. This zone is also when those who decide they aren’t on board with the change often decide to leave the organization.  

I have been through many organizational changes in my career, and have seen the neutral zone first hand (though I didn’t know it had a name at the time).  Based on my experience, the neutral zone is indeed the land of opportunity. Organizations who seize on the opportunity to show people what’s in it for them with regard to the change stand to reap the most benefit, both for the organization and the employee. Change is hard, to be sure. But, positively managing the transitions of change is what can make or break the change effort.

What changes are you currently experiencing? How are you managing the transitions? How do you think you’ll harness the power of the neutral zone?