Leading through the blurry neutral zone to create a bright Post-Pandemic era

Devin Vodicka

One of my favorite frameworks to understand change is the Bridges Transition Model. Building on his background as a therapist, Bridges identifies three phases of change: the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. Each of these phases is associated with emotions that frame, guide, and influence our context and individuals process at their own speed. This means that at any given moment individuals might be working through different aspects of the transition. This variation requires leaders to be adaptive and attentive so that they can understand how to best support and lead. 

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As a global society, COVID-19 has created one of the most disruptive changes in our lifetimes. Now that we are roughly one year into the pandemic, the rate of vaccination is picking up speed and many of us are beginning to feel like we may be near the end of an extended period of shutdowns and protective restrictions.  With that said, it is fair to say that we are not yet into the “new beginning” that is generating optimism for the future.  In fact, many might still be in the “ending” phase where they are struggling to let go of what was familiar to them pre-pandemic.  In my view the critical mass is likely in the blurry neutral zone, having reconciled that the world has changed and also not yet clear on what the “new normal” will bring.  

The neutral zone is typically accompanied by a decrease in productivity and emotions associated with this phase include anxiety, confusion, a sense of being overloaded or overwhelmed, low energy, and also openness to something new.  It can be disorienting and it can simultaneously be a time of great creativity and innovation.  It is a time of great risk and of great possibilities.

When in the neutral zone, Bridges suggests that leaders should embrace these strategies:

  • Normalize the experience: It is helpful for leaders to be explicit about where their team or organization is in the transition process.  Simply stating that it is ok to be confused or apprehensive during this time can help people to take a breath and get perspective.  
  • Redefine it: As stated, the neutral zone is a time of great risk (often because there is a temptation to go back to the comfort and familiarity of what used to be) AND a time of great possibility.  Focusing on the creativity that can be unleashed at this time can be a helpful reframe.  For example, right now our familiar metrics for success such as seat time and standardized test results are impractical.  Asking questions such as “ what might be a better measure of success that we can use and share?” opens the space for possibility.  
  • Create temporary systems
    • Short-range goals: These can be as simple as establishing daily goals but the key here is to bring any long-term aspirations into short-term focus by orienting on what is achievable quickly.  Taking the long view can actually be destabilizing during the neutral zone when people often feel overwhelmed and anxious.  While it may be implied, celebrating quick wins tied to these short-terms goals is also a helpful way to generate positive momentum and optimism.  
    • Special training programs: During the neutral zone sometimes leaders pull back on professional development because they are concerned about adding to a sense of being overwhelmed.  While that may be well-intended, the neutral zone is actually a time when people benefit tremendously from coming together for shared learning experiences.  As examples, our organization has had recent success with sessions on asset framing (to help reduce cognitive bias) and understanding our strengths.  These frameworks help us to have common language and the common experiences also build a sense of collegiality across our teams.  
    • Review policies and procedures: This is a great time to simplify and eliminate legacy policies or procedures that no longer fit the context.  If unsure, one strategy is to use temporary suspension as a method to determine the impact of eliminating a past practice.  
  • Strengthen intra-group connections: This is another counterintuitive approach at a time when people feel overwhelmed.  Increasing collaboration turns out to be an incredibly helpful way to sustain and improve engagement.  Isolation is a less desirable option, and when people feel destabilized by changes around them there is great comfort in community.  
  • Use a transition monitoring team: This is a simple and underutilized approach that has incredible value.  Ideally the transition monitoring team is cross-functional and representative of multiple stakeholder groups.  Bringing this group together routinely to ask questions about how people are feeling and to generate ideas for how to address emergent needs is a very powerful and helpful way to ensure openness and to be responsive.  
  • Embrace creativity by stepping back, questioning the issues, creating forums for problem-solving and sharing new ideas, and allowing time to answer questions: Establishing open office hours or creating Q&A forums is one way to create the space for these generative conversations.  In addition, when facing a new problem, bringing teams together to work collaboratively to identify possible solutions is not only empowering but likely more effective than a centralized approach.  

Additional Resource:

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

Use #LCLeadership to share your ideas

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