Roles of Leaders During Transitions

by Ted Murcray

Wayne Fletcher, Associate Provost of Academic Services, presented on “Managing Change” during the Leadership Brown Bag session hosted by the Teaching and Learning Center on January 14 & 15, 2020. This post is written by Ted Murcray as he reflected on the experience as a participant.

Change is hard for many reasons, and the process of leading others through change is challenging. I am excited to have been able to attend Fletcher’s session because he brought insights on leadership that were new to me.

If you have done any reading on change leadership, you have likely come across Lewin’s Change Theory and Kotter’s 8-step Change Model. Both are helpful ways to conceptualize the work we do as we move through the change process. What I found unique was Fletcher visually laid Lewin’s three stages on top of Kotter’s 8 steps to make an integrated model. It was a refreshing approach because, too often, leaders are asked to make binary decisions when approaching a change issue – Will you use Lewin or Kotter? Which model is the best one to use? Fletcher laid those questions to rest by proposing a “both/and” approach that I believe will be useful to leaders across campus. I confess to needing more time to study and digest the concept before discussing further here, but nonetheless, I am excited about the possibilities.

Another nugget of truth Fletcher shared is what I want to focus on here – thus the title of the post. What are the roles that leaders play as they go through the change process? We have all seen the political cartoons showing a caricature of a leader running ahead of the group shouting, “Charge!” – completely unaware that no one in the group is following. None of us wants to find ourselves in the position of being the lone crusader in times of change. This leads us to ask the question: What role should I play, as the leader, when my team is going through a time of change?

Fletcher answered this question by bringing to our attention Bridges Transition Model. Bridges suggests that leaders must do more than order or direct change to occur. Leaders need to spend time coaching those who are moving through the transition process. Like Lewin’s model, Bridges suggest that transition happens in three stages, but he calls these stages Endings, The Neutral Zone, and Moving Forward or The New Beginning. According to Fletcher, leaders coach their team through these three stages, but the type of coaching they do changes in each stage.

Here are the roles as I understand them. I encourage you to read more on the topic if you are facing an opportunity to take your team through the change process.

Endings – Saying goodbye to what we have known is hard to do. During this stage, members often feel confused and disoriented. Many feel a loss of identity – especially if their job title or job responsibilities are changing the process. In this phase, leaders need to take on the role of a Listener. Listening to the fears and concerns of the team gives the team members an appropriate space to air their concerns, and also helps the leaders keep their “finger on the pulse” of how the team members are reacting to the change.

The Neutral Zone – Briefly, the neutral zone is a place where the change has started – the old is moving away and the new is starting – and there is a lot of discomfort here as well. During this stage, successful leaders take on two roles: Recruiter and Educator. Leaders spend time recruiting the team towards the change initiative – really championing the change and building a sense of excitement. At the same, leaders take on the role of an Educator to help the team see the benefits, how the change works, how new processes will work, etc.

The New Beginning – During New Beginnings, members are already starting the new initiative, but they may feel hesitant. They may be looking to see how others on the team are coping, and they often want to check in regularly to see that they are on the right track. During this time, the leader is a true Coach. This includes taking time to go over questions, checking on team members to see how they feel, and pointing the positive work that team members are doing, while coaching and correcting any errors made along the way.

This is a helpful way to view the work that a leader does – to note how the role shifts over the course of the change process.

If you have tried these roles, feel free to “sound off” in the comments below and share your experiences. Additionally, if you are a leader at CBU and are facing an upcoming change, feel free to reach out to the Teaching and Learning Center for ideas or resources. We provide supports, and we also can put you in touch with the Leadership Institute here on campus, for more resources and support.

Special thanks to Dr. Wayne Fletcher for bringing his knowledge to the community!

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