There’s been a recurring theme in my coaching work over the last month. What surprised me was that it emerged in contexts as diverse as coaching a start up, a group and a client. The theme was the messiness and chaos of change.
Whilst their situations were very different, what they shared was experience of discomfort and uncertainty. They were all trying to find ways to move through it, as quickly as possible.
Making a distinction between change and transition (Managing Transitions, Bridges) can help make sense of this experience.
Change is situational, an event that interrupts your life in someway. For the start up, the change was the introduction of a ‘formal’ organisation design, as it scaled up. For the group, it was the return to work after parental leave. For the client, it was leaving the corporate world and starting her own business.
On the other hand, transition is our psychological response to that change.
There are three phases to a transition – the ending and letting go of the old way, the neutral zone moving between the known and the unknown and the new beginning, when we develop new identities, renewed energies and sense of purpose.
My coaching work with the start up, group and client was in the ‘neutral zone’, the moving in-between phase.
None of them described what they were experiencing as neutral – in fact far from it! The ‘chaotic zone’ would be a better description. It felt disorientating, confusing and without a clear sense of direction.
Their confidence had taken a dip and their inner critics had become louder. This is all normal and to be expected, as we feel anxious that the things we used to hold on to and that gave us certainty, are no longer there.
We don’t learn from a state of competence and certainty; we learn from a state of not knowing. So of course we feel uncomfortable. But this is where remarkable things can emerge that wouldn’t have seemed possible when we were still attached to our old, structured way of doing things. It’s a space for freedom, creativity and experimentation.
How do we get the most from this chaotic phase?
- Reminding ourselves it’s normal. Just knowing this is part and parcel of change can be helpful and reassuring. I was deeply moved when one of the returning mums who’d had a traumatic and complicated parental leave, let out a big sigh and shared with the group “This is what I’ve been going through, it’s now making sense. I’m starting to come out of the messy stage and find my new way”.
- Embrace it. Make the most of it, as when things start to settle down again they’ll become more fixed. Question how things used to be, step back and experiment with new ways. For a client, this time was an opportunity to experiment with new ways of networking that initially felt uncomfortable but enabled her to test her proof of concept.
- Recognising we’re all different. We all experience change differently. Some people thrive and others struggle. If you’re a leader, check in with your team regularly; it’s easy for people to feel isolated. Encourage them to find new ways of doing things. For the start up this was finding new ways to communicate.
And finally, don’t rush. Try and stay with the unknown and lack of certainty. There can be a tendency to grasp for certainty and miss out on the benefits of this stage.
Alison Green is an executive coach who works with people during times of change and transition to help them realise their brilliant selves.