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Report from the strategic planning journal Futures, Vol.31 (6) August 1999, 609-616

Human responses to change

Dai Williams
Eos Career Services, 32 Send Road, Send, Woking, Surrey GU23 7ET, UK

  1. Transition - the human response to trauma and change
  2. Implications for organisations
  3. Transitions in major organisations
  4. Transition psychology: agenda for survival
  5. Future applications

Everything is subject to change. Our lives, the communities and societies we live in and the organisations we work for are all affected by waves of change. Some are gradual, others traumatic; some are of our own making, many are beyond our control. The effects of global recession, genetic engineering and the Millennium transition involve changes of unknown scale and complexity. All these changes can generate stress both for individuals and societies.

Coping with stress and change have always been fundamental issues for human survival and evolution. Psychological and cultural coping mechanisms have evolved for both tasks. But most organisational change theories and practices focus on motivation, performance and organisational agendas for change. Less attention has been given to psycho-social contexts for individuals. Change strategies can either impede or enhance the natural psychological process of transition that enables individuals to adapt to change and transform their lives [1]. This is where transition psychology comes into play.

Counselling professionals have been using transition psychology since the sixties [2]. Today, transition awareness is essential for managers, researchers and consultants seeking to diagnose deeper factors in conflict and crises situations, and to enable individuals and organisations to manage change successfully. Transition theory also has strategic implications for the performance of political leaders and for managing social and economic change. It offers insights and survival strategies for individuals and communities in rapidly changing economic and political situations such as periods of recession, and after elections, wars and natural disasters.

Seventy occupational psychologists, practitioners and researchers gathered at a symposium on 'Transition Psychology', organised by the British Psychology Society in Blackpool on 6 January 1999 [3], with the aim of putting transition psychology on the international agenda and increasing public and professional awareness of the relevance of transition psychology. Medical models of trauma, stress and depression focus on pathological behaviour and therapy. Corporate human resourcing policies seek to control or exclude staff with sickness-absence or performance problems and to minimise resistance to change. There is little understanding of the human potential to adapt creatively to trauma and change, and of opportunities for self-healing, personal and career development that occur during the transition process.

The symposium heard how transition management is being used in Shell, and how it might have reduced the crises that affected both the new UK Government and Opposition 6-8 months after the 1997 election landslide. It has major implications for many political events, employment practices and societal change into the new Millennium.

Continuous changes in organisations and society are forcing individuals to make major and more frequent transitions in their personal and working lives. Yet modern society has given relatively little attention to understanding these transitions, or to supporting people through them. Traditional societies used many 'rites of passage' to prepare and support people through life changes. The symposium discussed updated models of the individual transition process (see below) and debated their implications.

1. Transition - the human response to trauma and change

Transitions are the natural process by which humans respond to trauma and change. We have to go through several stages to fully adapt to major events in our work and personal lives [3c]. Bereavement, injury, separation or redundancy and new relationships, jobs or relocation radically change our lives. Good events as well as bad can destabilise our minds, requiring us to radically alter our understanding of the world. This takes longer than most people realise, often with a period of deep inner crisis about 6 months later, until we can let go of the past and adapt fully to our new reality. This process seems to affect everyone, in most cultures, after major life events. These occur 10-20 times in most people's lives. If understood and supported these events can be turning points and opportunities. If not they can lead to serious errors of judgement, depression, breakdown, broken relationships, careers and sometimes suicide (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change.
{The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change}

When we experience a personal crisis, or see others in one, we usually look to immediate circumstances. If there are obvious external factors these may start a transition. But experienced counsellors encourage clients in crisis to review recent life events as well. If we have experienced a major trauma or change in the past year the underlying cause may be a transition crisis. We may be near recovery provided we and others act wisely. Economic security and emotional support are prime factors for successful recovery. Delayed recovery can occur months or years later in response to other events.

2. Implications for organisations

One of the key issues is the extent to which we expect individuals to be resilient in adapting to change. One extreme approach is to adapt a Darwinian 'survival of the fittest' model: an individual's working life is entirely their own responsibility, 'Me plc'. The opposite extreme is to expect employing organisations to manage their employees' working lives for them.

The real need is for a balance between a degree of individual agency and transition skills, and appropriate organisational support to create an environment in which individuals can learn and develop through the transitions we all go through.

Transitions have serious implications for organisational practice. Employees will not follow their leaders into yet more change unless they trust them. They need to trust their leaders' competence. credibility and motives. The symposium discussed factors that can enable or inhibit successful transitions. In his paper on 'Trust and transitions', Peter Herriot [3a],[4] identified some which managers and political leaders need to be aware of:

3. Transitions in major organisations

Examples of transitions for politicians were derived from Ashley Weinberg's [3d] research into the experiences of new MPs entering and adapting to the new UK Administration of May 1997, and analysis of subsequent media reports of key events for ministers and MPs by Dai Williams [4].

Organisation Consultant, Dr Richard Plenty, from Shell Services International spoke about Shell's approach to transition management [3b] . He drew a clear distinction between external 'change' in the business, and personal 'transition'. Shell has given training in transition management skills to managers and staff world wide for several years, and has found that transition awareness is extremely helpful in managing effective change.

Dr Plenty described Shell's overall approach of supporting employees in their taking greater responsibility for their working lives, giving examples of Shell-wide leadership training, induction processes and career support systems. All this is helping people to be more resilient and creative in a rapidly changing environment.

Events in Parliament provided graphic examples of unmanaged transitions, particularly the transition crisis period likely to happen several months after a trauma or change, when people may think they have already adjusted to their new situation. The landslide election result in May 1997 was a dramatic example of organisation change: 96% of MPs experienced radical career changes, success or loss, on the same day [5]. From October 97 to February 98 the media reported a succession of crises for both major parties, their leaders, over 150 MPs, many ex-MPs and a number of families.

The Parliament transition also provided classic examples of the powerful recovery phase that completes successful transitions for individuals, vital to establishing successful organisation changes. Several ministers made spectacular recoveries or 'come-backs' within a few weeks of widely publicised crises in December and January. It appears that these led to collective recovery for the Government after the Gulf War vote (February 98) seen in the well-received Budget (March) and Irish peace agreement (April) [3e].

Similar crisis and recovery patterns may be seen in other organisations and management teams after mergers, redundancies and other changes. The 'honeymoon, crisis, recovery' pattern seen in the new UK Government seems to have occurred in the new Norwegian Parliament elected on October 97. A honeymoon was followed by devaluation 6 months later. With no clear majority the Parliament had an extended crisis leading to a period of illness (described as depression) for the Prime Minister in September 98. He recovered 4 weeks later and established a stable administration within 2 months.

Politicians like businessmen have to be resilient and resourceful, but have to go through transitions like everyone else to adapt to change. Individual traumas and changes since the UK election e.g. Princess Diana's death, other bereavements and the Omagh bomb tragedy were likely to start other personal transitions for ministers and MPs leading to new crises and opportunities for recovery. The Government is UK's largest employer. Parliament is a crucible for change and could be a role model for transition management and enlightened employment practices. But Parliament has a long way to go before it succeeds in supporting ministers and MPs through their changes, and in easing the conflicting demands of their Westminster, constituency and family roles.

All those who experience major transitions have to let go of elements of their past before they can fully come to terms with their 'new reality'. Organisations can help or hinder this process especially during the transition crisis and recovery stages. When this is done successfully individuals take on a new lease of life, acting confidently and creatively. This transition process and its 'recovery phase' may hold the secret to how mankind has survived and evolved after wars and disasters. It is the sum of individual transitions and enlightenment that provides the key to social and organisational transformation.

4. Transition psychology: agenda for survival

Professional consultants and researchers attending the symposium discussed how transition psychology might offer important insights and opportunities at three levels - for individuals, organisations and society. Participants saw a need to stimulate urgent enquiries into the transition phenomenon with other branches of psychology and with other professions and disciplines-to start a national debate on the Transition Agenda including the needs of small businesses, the unemployed and communities. They agreed that national awareness of transition processes might be crucial to help individuals, organisations and communities to cope with major changes expected in the next 2 years. These range from the quest for peace in Ireland and new Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, to the effects of mergers, global recession, demographic change, international conflicts, and moderate or severe disruption in the Millennium transition.

Central to current and future changes will be the effects of stress and change on the judgement of political and business leaders, coping with their own transitions while managing others. Many world leaders experienced transition crises in 1998 and some are still in them. More are likely in 1999 as a result of elections and conflicts. All countries and national leaders are likely to be affected in 2000 with possible repercussions for decades.

When political leaders fail to recognise and manage transitions, for themselves or their organisations they may make strategic errors of judgement. They risk losing the trust and respect essential to maintain co-operation and morale in periods of rapid change. For example, in 1998 national leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, USA, UK and Zimbabwe all faced personal crises or trauma, and experienced periods of political crisis or made strategic errors several months later. Similar patterns may affect the new government in Germany in spring 1999 following their election in September 1998, and other governments due for election in 1999.

Personal transition crises for leaders need to be recognised, understood and allowed for. Their individual recoveries may give them fresh strategic vision to achieve some degree of economic, social or political transformation. But this can be quickly lost when another trauma or change occurs. Consequently the health and actions of world leaders need ongoing scrutiny [6]. This is essential to safeguard organisations, society and world peace from the grave consequences of stress-impaired decisions by leaders in personal crisis.

5. Future applications

The transition process appears to be an ancient psychological mechanism likely to operate in all cultures, and with a natural time cycle taking 6-9 months to work through. This time lag is not expected so most individuals and observers try to attribute a current crisis to current events. Analysts may find it useful to apply the transition cycle as a template for identifying potential causes and consequences of crisis behaviour, for individuals, organisations or communities. Equally important is the potential of the transition process to enable individual recovery and sometimes transformation, much sooner after some crises than most people would expect.

The effects of transitions should be apparent to many other disciplines as well as occupational psychology. They are being studied by occupational health professionals in the UK and Europe who advise employers on corporate health policy and the prospects for recovery for individual managers and staff affected by stress related illnesses. Stress caused by transition crisis is of a different order from stress caused by common causes like work overload, role conflict or difficult relationships.

Historical and political analysts, biographers, disaster aid workers and social anthropologists have access to rich sources of data likely to show evidence of transition crises and recovery patterns. The predictive value of transition theory needs more research. It is sufficiently well established for regular use by career consultants advising individuals on job change, redundancy and expatriate assignments. Individuals can learn to recognise and manage their own transitions, and those of colleagues or family.

Transition psychology is worth considering as a factor in scenario and contingency planning for anticipated changes e.g. company mergers, national elections and more severe effects of the Millennium transition. The phases of transition should be a significant factor in disaster response and support planning. Traditional stress counselling initiatives e.g. for the Kuwait Victims Support Group were run down 5 months later - just when delayed transition crisis effects and recovery opportunities were increasing. Transition management may provide a wider and more positive psychological framework for minimising the medium and long-term effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

6. Conclusions

Just as the fight and flight response has evolved to equip us to cope with danger, the transition cycle enables humans to adapt to trauma and change. Both are powerful survival mechanisms. They operate spontaneously and are available to everyone from presidents to refugees. But they can go badly wrong in modern societies. Possibly the most important feature of transition psychology is that it explains the mechanism by which individuals make radical changes of values and attitudes most appropriate to a new environment i.e. personal transformation. So transition awareness and transition management skills are fundamental issues for leaders who seek to transform organisations and societies. Because transitions are an individual process, leaders can facilitate or impede personal transformation but not demand it.

The transition process cannot be patented but greater awareness of it among those who control social, political and economic systems could be abused. The antidote to this is to increase public awareness of it through community education programmes. This would enable individuals and communities to make more use of this innate resource, and maximise their chances of recovery and successful adaptation after periods of trauma or change. The crisis phase is a time for caution and mutual support. Individual defining moments can lead to the recovery phase - a time of rising morale, new insights and new initiatives. Greater awareness of transitions may be a key to personal and national survival in an era of unprecedented change.


1. Adams J, Hayes J, Hopson B. Transition: Understanding and Managing Personal Change, Martin Robinson, London, 1976, pp 3-25.
2. Sugarman L. Life Span Development, Methuen, London, 1986, pp 131-65.
3. Transition Psychology: The Waves of Change. Symposium papers in Proceedings of the UK Occupational Psychology Conference, Brit. Psychological Soc., Jan 1999 as follows:

a. Trust and transitions: strategic issues for organisations. Peter Herriot
b. Transition strategies in Shell. Richard Plenty
c. Life events and career change: transition psychology in practice. Dai Williams
d. The impact of change on Members of Parliament. Ashley Weinberg
e. Parliament in transition: effects of the 1997 UK election landslide. Dai Williams

4. Herriot P, Hirsh W, Reilly P. Trust and transition. Wiley, Chichester, 1998
5. Williams D. Parliament in transition: honeymoon, crisis and recovery. Eos, Woking, 1997
6. Freeman H. The human brain and political behaviour. Brit. J. Psychiatry, 1991, 159, 19-32

© 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the publisher's permission Jan 2000

For details of other Futures papers see the Elsevier website at www.elsevier.com/locate/futures

You can track your own experience of transitions on the Eos Life-Line exercise (PDF download).
Your comments on these issues are welcome - email Dai Williams at eosuk@btinternet.com

Links updated 14 January 2008

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