Why Can't They Just Stay Home?
The Bridges Transition Model gives insight as to why some people defy advice and orders to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak. It also suggests what we can do to help people move towards desired outcomes during a change – be it the coronavirus pandemic, organisational restructuring or a failed relationship, etc.
Every day, we are inundated with information about the coronavirus. In the deluge of information, we hear of people ignoring advice, pleas and even orders to practise social distancing and stay at home. Such individuals exist not only in Singapore but around the world. They appear deaf to government leaders and medical experts – and defiant when they cough on law enforcement workers who direct them to go home. In response, their fellow members in society have expressed indignation and outrage. They question (whether explicitly or discreetly) these people for not accepting change and aligning accordingly. Why can’t they pull together with everyone else to protect themselves, their loved ones and others at large? Don’t they care about overloading the healthcare system and the deaths that will result from that?
There are different reasons for different individuals’ behaviours. If you are a business leader, manager or change champion in your organisation, you would know that getting everyone through a transformation or change initiative and towards the desired outcomes, is a most challenging, if not impossible, affair. While leaders will and should deploy different strategies and tactics depending on their specific situation, the Bridges Transition Model, developed by change consultant William Bridges offers important insights on managing the personal and human side of change. And, in these extraordinary times, it holds an answer as to why some people just cannot stay at home.
A significant difference between change and transition
The Bridges Transition Model starts by making a clear distinction between ‘change’ and ‘transition’. ‘Change’ refers to the external event that will or is taking place. Leaders usually focus on the desired outcomes that the change produces. Indeed, as the coronavirus sweeps across countries, a key message is: we need you all to stay at home as much as possible to slow down transmission, avoid overburdening the healthcare system, give scientists time to develop vaccines and treatments and ultimately prevent deaths.
‘Transition’, on the other hand, refers to the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalise and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about.
Critically, change will only be successful if leaders address the transition that people experience during change. Ironically, the starting point for dealing with transition is not the ‘outcomes desired’ but the ‘endings’ that people need to come to terms with, in leaving their old situation behind.
The three stages of transition
The Bridges Transition Model delineates three stages of transition: endings, neutral zone and new beginnings.
- Endings: In this first stage, people need to identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep.
- Neutral zone: This is the second stage, an in-between time when critical psychological realignments occur. The old is gone, while the new is not fully in place. People are learning and creating a new reality, but they are also in flux and hence may feel confusion and distress. Painful as it may be, the neutral zone is the seedbed for new beginnings.
- New Beginnings: This last stage is marked by a release of energy in a new direction. People have internalised new understandings, values and attitudes, and thus express a fresh identity. They feel reoriented and renewed. They not only accept change but embrace and actively create it.
The implications for us
What this means is, to get people to move towards desired outcomes, we need to first help them in their transition, specifically through the endings and neutral zone.
Distilling the Bridges Transition Model and other writings of its advocates further, here are three questions leaders can ask, to help others through their transition. These three questions stand in contrast to three statements that leaders often give their followers in times of change.
Leaders need to first understand and help others articulate what they will lose in the change. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, typically outgoing individuals may need to recognise their loss of pleasure or freedom in being out and about. In a typical organisational restructuring, a particular department head may need to recognise his loss of status; retrenched workers will have to come to terms with a loss of income security. Someone facing a partner’s death or the break-up of a particular relationship face the loss of companionship and love.
Next, a person will not accept and align with change as hoped, if leaders only tell him or her what to do, or explain how desirable the outcome would be. After understanding what has or will be lost in the transition from the person’s perspective, leaders should ideally first hear out how his or her needs or desires could be met in other ways. In a time-critical situation like the coronavirus pandemic, this will not be possible and harder approaches such as fines and jail-time have to be first enforced to ensure people stay at home.
Yet, in most other situations, we can afford more time and effort to support others in their transition. For instance, you may be a peer to that department head resisting restructuring changes. You may be a relative to that retrenched employee who seems too shaken to do anything productive now. You may be a friend to someone who cannot accept the demise of a marriage. Even now, during the coronavirus outbreak, you may be a family or friend to someone who at heart is not convicted about minimising his or her social activities, never mind what the government or experts say. What could you do to support these people in transition?
Helping others in transition
- Sit with them and ask the three questions proposed earlier.
- Listen with an open mind. Be prepared for surprises. Who knows, that defiant party-goer does not fear losing freedom if asked to stay home, but the “respect” of friends if he or she does not join the party.
- Be patient. Sometimes, people in transition are not yet able to fully articulate what they are losing or have to let go of. Try some free online questionnaires such as the Personal Values Assessment together to get a dialogue going.
- Be courageous but well-intentioned in delivering honest feedback. Some people’s losses, needs or desires stem from certain unhealthy fears, which have to be illuminated and dealt with. Otherwise, the fears will limit and stunt their growth.
- Step in with practical support to meet needs if appropriate and if you can. For example, for people going through grief, assistance with daily errands is likely appreciated.
- Persevere. The process of supporting someone in transition may feel slow. It may sometimes even feel like one is going backwards. Endings take time, and even after that, there is the neutral zone of flux between old and new realities that people are trying to create. If you become frustrated with a lack of linear progress, motivate yourself with this question from Marshall Goldsmith, a leadership thinker and coach: “Am I willing at this time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” Let your answer guide you thereafter.
The next time you are tempted to burst out with a “why can’t they accept the change and deal with it”, why not reach out and support these people in their transition?