Sarah Bridges, Founder and CEO, Bridges ConsultingSarah Bridges, Founder and CEO
Change doesn’t stop. Aside from internal things (different technology, new channels, or reorganization), outside factors shift us, like it or not. Despite the vast experience organizations have, the ability to manage change is still a weak point for most companies. This stems from a focus on the external aspects such as the technical steps and project milestones and resources. My father, William Bridges, developed the Transition Model, which turns focus inside out. It zeroes in on the human side of change and the necessary psychological phases people experience in moving from the old to the new. The model teaches there are three stages humans experience during change, and it paradoxically begins by ending. Phase one relates to letting go of what is; the second (the Neutral Zone) is the messy territory after a change, but before it is habitual and accepted. The final phase is the new beginning, in which the internal transition catches up to the exterior change. When we consult on change management, we teach senior leaders (who typically move quickly through the stages) about this human reorientation process. We also help them understand that people progress through transition at different rates, and a piece of their job is meeting employees where they are and facilitating movement through the overlapping phases.

Here is the tricky part: people enter the Ending when leaders first roll out the change. Employees tend to resist the shift due to the fact that they are forced to give things up: status, experience, relationships, habits, and control. From a neuropsychological standpoint, these losses trigger fear, anxiety, frustration, and sadness. Without acknowledgment of expected emotions, executives unintentionally appear heartless or out of touch—engagement sinks. With a transition-model mindset, different behaviors are needed. By listening to people’s feelings, validating them, and communicating about the thread tying the “old way” to the “new”, employees calm down and are more receptive to moving forward. At Bridges, we also introduce the latest brain science supporting these suggestions, such as the innate loss aversion humans possess. We help executives understand that loss is always subjective and things like status are often subtler than a title. A truism about endings is that understanding is more important than agreement.

Once in the Neutral Zone, people have progressed into a new phase in which the organization can feel messy, disorganized, and overwhelming. This is the time when complaining gets louder, and employees wonder aloud why they can’t go back to before. Typical emotions are confusion, impatience, and stress. This phase is the land bridge between the past and the new reality, and lowered productivity is always seen. For all of the discomfort, the neutral zone is also ripe with innovation as employees are forced to step out of the status quo and try new things. Executives can reduce the churn by creating temporary structures (communication, teams, or systems) to carry people through until the change becomes natural. This is a time to provide feedback, encourage creativity, find quick wins, and communicate repetitively.

In the New Beginning, it seems as if things have clicked into place. It is critical in this period to cement the Neutral Zone’s good ideas and help employees sustain the changes. This is also an ideal moment to ensure organizational rewards tie to the new attitudes and behavior that are required to uphold the change.

Bridges Consulting

In addition to change management, Bridges Consulting offers a full range of coaching, assessments, and team services to help foster a sense of trust through times of organizational evolution. In an interview with Manage HR Magazine, Sarah Bridges, CEO and founder of Bridges Consulting, sheds light on their approach to change management and how they align with company culture, values, people, and behaviors to achieve successful transformations. Sarah has 25 years of experience as a neuropsychologist, executive coach, speaker, writer, and leadership advisor.

Could you provide a brief overview of Bridges Consulting?

We are the Midwest’s first solely female organizational psychology consulting firm. We have been active in the change and leadership development space for over 20 years and use an eclectic approach to our work that blends brain science, psychology, and business best practices. As the founder and CEO of Bridges Consulting, I have 25 years of experience as a consultant, speaker, writer, and executive coach. I also earned a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, as well as an MBA, and I have a deep background in organizational effectiveness. One of our senior consultants, Jenna Hanson, is an attorney with an education in social sciences and psychology. She brings the unique blend of analytical skills and knowledge from her work in people-intensive areas of law. My team also consists of Kelly Thorp, a former CHRO, and Samantha Hansen, a consultant and project manager. Our newest addition is Madeleine Titze, a consultant with higher education change management expertise.

Change and transition are different animals. When both are managed, we don’t just ‘get through’ shifts, but forge bonds and build innovation

What are the challenges your clients face, and how does Bridges Consulting help them mitigate the same?

It is interesting to me that the same patterns persist. Organizations tend to be good at planning the objective and technical pieces of change. However, the human side is often overlooked. Executives are early adapters and bemoan change resistance. We often are called when a change has sputtered, and the financial ROI is in jeopardy. When leaders see that the “soft” pieces of transition have hard metrics attached, they embrace bringing in a holistic solution.

What functional areas of change management do you focus on?

We help companies navigate mergers and acquisitions, reorganization, culture shifts, enterprise technology adoption, and other broad shifts.

How do you identify that a client requires a particular change management strategy and implement them?

When we engage with a client, we begin with data gathering to understand the issues from a cross-level and functional view. We listen deeply before acting, and the information can’t simply come from the top. This is partly because the discussions themselves are an inclusion exercise and because the C-suite executives are likely to embrace the change due to more time, knowledge, and control. The employees often come in midstream when decisions and commitments are already made. After our conversations, we schedule a debrief with leadership. HR is our key partner in this work and helps shape the discussion of the critical issues raised by employees. Our download is transparent and direct. We feel that the best planning comes from a non-political and frank discussion of reality. From that point, we educate on the transition process and share the needed communication, support, and direction needed in each phase. From there, we teach the employees about transitions and enable them to move forward with less pain and resistance. We have a blueprint and track progress.

Could you narrate an instance that highlights the benefits brought to one of your clients after approaching Bridges Consulting?

We recently helped a consumer packaging business as they acquired a fast-growing and entrepreneurial start-up. The cultures couldn’t have been more different: big and small, slow and fast, and formal and casual. Both sides were excited, yet distrust quickly emerged. Our data gathering highlighted specific cultural differences and needed adaptations on both sides to work together effectively. The start-up’s Ending was different from the bigger organization and understanding that grieving and skepticism are expected helped lessen the reaction to them. As they moved into the nitty-gritty of the Neutral Zone, we helped them create a temporary (one year) cross-company task force to surface issues quickly and tailor communication to each group. All employees learned the transition model, and we normalized the less-productive time as they assimilated. The year ended with engagement scores rebounding in both groups and new shoots of innovation and camaraderie throughout the blended company. As one executive shared well into the project, “We used to impose change and wonder why it failed. Now we manage the change and the transition and overall trust in the executive team has skyrocketed.”