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Beware the Emotional Effects of Transition

By John Pearson

I posted this blog in 2016, but based on my governance radar, it's time for a rerun! Enjoy and heed!

If your board has term limits, it's likely you say “farewell and thanks” to one, two, or three board members every year. It might surprise you, though, to understand what each of your departing board members are feeling.

In the bestselling book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, William Bridges writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation.”

He adds, "Change is external. Transition is internal."

At a recent board retreat, I challenged board members to pick one major change the organization had negotiated and then to pick one word that described the stage and the feelings that resulted—from their unique perspectives.

Bridges notes that "the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names," and suggests there are three phases of managing a transition:
• Ending
• Neutral Zone
• New Beginning

The author says it's important for leaders to be alert to the emotions and the psychological impact people experience as they journey through transitions. Perhaps you can reflect on a recent major change you have experienced as a board—and can pinpoint where people are along the journey. According to Bridges, here are the more common emotions in each phase:

ENDING: denial, anxiety, shock, confusion, sadness, annoyance/anger, fear, frustration, and cynicism.
NEUTRAL ZONE: curiosity, adjustment, exploration, learning.
NEW BEGINNING: creative tension, impatience, acceptance, hope or skepticism, relief, excitement, trust, enthusiasm.

One board member at the retreat circled the "sadness" emotion. His board term was ending and he was genuinely sad at the thought of being absent from the table. He spoke warmly of the relationships, the important mission of the organization, and much more.

"Oh, my," I thought. "Other board members often exit with glee—no more meetings, more time for leisure and family, and fewer deadlines. Yet this board member was sad.”

Really—that was wonderful. What a stunning board culture!

By the way, the board did a spectacular job of honoring him and one other departing board member. Well-prepared words. Short thank you videos from staff and clients. Coffee mugs with their top-five strengths from the StrengthsFinder assessment, framed photo collages, and personalized mementos with the organization’s mission statement.

The presentation was poignant and perfect. Oh, my.

The big changes facing your board may be in another realm: CEO succession, program changes, financial crisis, or other challenges. So this is just a reminder that changes produce transitions, and transitions produce emotions—and all of us may be at different levels of moving from the ending, to the neutral zone, to the new beginning.

Note: To go deeper on this subject, read the resource article on Moses, “Getting Them Through the Wilderness,” by William Bridges. Here’s a taste:

“When Pharaoh finally let Moses’ people go, some of them surely thought that the Promised Land was just around the corner. But Moses was not so naive, for he saw that he still had two problems. First, he had to draw a line of no return between the ending and the neutral zone. Second, he had to keep people in the neutral zone long enough for them to be fundamentally changed by the wilderness experience.”

QUESTION: How sensitive are your board members, CEO, and senior team members in recognizing that the decisions you make can trigger a variety of emotions and responses among the staff, volunteers, clients/customers, and donors you serve?

MORE RESOURCES: Al Lopus shares more exit wisdom in his guest blog, "Cut the Cord! Invite Board Members to Exit When They Don’t Live Your Values," based on chapter 31 in Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, by Dan Busby and John Pearson.

 

This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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