The Art of Mastering Change: The Neutral Zone

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Terry DowdBy Terry Dowd, CRA, FAHRA

May 2013—William Bridges describes the place between the implementation of a new change and completely letting go of the old process as the “neutral zone.”1 As leaders, we must understand that this stage of any change process is crucial and needs our complete attention.  The neutral zone is a challenging place characterized by a transition that must be successfully navigated if the changes that are occurring will be accepted and permanent.

According to Bridges – and we have all experienced or seen this recently in healthcare – anxiety rises with change, and that anxiety can interfere with daily activities.  In complicated process changes, people are caught between the demands of two systems.  They have limited energy.  Absenteeism can increase and, in some cases, problem areas that existed in the old system can become magnified.  Errors can occur and teamwork suffers as people cope with the change.  Even during small changes, people can be distracted and productivity can be affected.

It is important to use this time wisely.  It is crucial to the success of any project or change.  There are positive aspects to the neutral zone and opportunities exist if we can help our team focus on them.  Very often old processes do not fit new systems.  We can take the time to design new processes by asking our teams questions.  How can we improve what we do?  What roles and procedures need to change?  How can we work smarter using the new tools we have?  By tapping into the talent inherent in our teams new ideas will emerge.  This is an ideal way to help employees realize the old is definitely going away and the new is here to stay.

We can help our teams through this transitional time in several other areas as well:

  • Acknowledge and allow peoples’ feelings to be expressed.  Have a safe place for people to express their frustrations.  Explain to the team their feelings are normal. Things will get better.  This is “the winter before the spring.”1
  • Provide training for new roles.  Make it real and alive by using coaches, super-users, and change agents to work one on one with team members who are struggling.
  • Limit other changes if possible.  Delay or at least stage other changes to avoid employees feeling overwhelmed.
  • Give temporary assignments in other departments or at other facilities where similar changes have taken place if possible.  Let your team experience new roles first hand in a safe environment.
  • Have a timeline for completion of the change and publish it on bulletin boards, newsletters, etc. to help keep everyone on track. Send specific emails giving details about progress at regular intervals until the project is complete.   Knowing where everyone is in the process will enhance engagement.
  • Celebrate completed tasks on the timeline.  Even successfully completed phases of small projects are milestones.  For example, post a barometer that shows the percentage of team members who have successfully completed training.
  • Support changing roles and relationships.  Changes in processes can affect how people interact with one another.  Reporting structures may change.  Help your team to establish new relationships if needed.

Finally, remind yourself that the neutral zone is a chance to do something new and interesting.  Opportunities do exist.  Challenging?  Absolutely. But handled well, the implementation of the new change is more likely to be successful if the neutral zone is navigated well.

Reference:

1. Bridges, W. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. 3rd ed. New York: Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2009.


Terry Dowd, CRA, FAHRA is the senior clinical manager at Banner Health System-Baywood in Mesa, AZ. She can be reached at terry.dowd@bannerhealth.com.

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