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  • Gail Townsend

A plan for navigating work transitions

Drawing on her experience helping organizations and individuals navigate change, Dr. Gail Townsend shares ideas and questions to consider in the midst of a work transition.

A woman's back as she walks through woods with a backpack

Just as nature transitions from season to season, so do we as individuals. Each transition that we encounter as humans could be considered a seasonal transition. It is not a fast process moving from summer to autumn, from autumn to winter, from winter to spring and from spring to summer. Likewise, it is not a fast process as humans navigate transitions!

For individuals to optimally navigate transitions, it is important to appreciate, prioritize, and learn from the space that is in between the seasons. In nature, the space between winter and spring is a time for the roots of shrubs, flowers, and trees to strengthen and get nourishment. Then, when the spectacular spring arrives with its full bounty of leaves and flowers, something strong and beautiful has emerged. This is true with humans, too.

As people search for meaning in their work, explicit consciousness emerges. It is important to be intentional in seeking the support of guides, mentors, coaches, and work colleagues. I think that nature can be part of one’s support system, too. A walk in the woods, a hike up a mountain trail, and time spent at the ocean can all nourish one’s soul. Through this nourishment, a stronger and more aware self can emerge.

The difference between change and transition

Change and transition are two very distinct phases of life. Changes are logical and transitions are psychological. Changes are cognitive and transitions are emotional. During the transition state, individuals leave what is known to them and begin to seek a new beginning of excitement, meaningful opportunities, and chaos! Yes, there can be chaos and it is normal. I have found it helpful to have awareness of the stages of transition as I have navigated from the known into the unknown world of new opportunity.

A woman seen from behind, admiring a waterfall

Bridges’ three phases of transition

William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, has researched and written extensively about how to navigate change and transition. His work describes three distinct phases: 1) ending and letting go; 2) the neutral zone; and 3) the new beginning. It’s important to appreciate the characteristics and learning associated with each.

The first phase of a transition process is called The Ending. During this time of loss, individuals benefit from tapping into their support systems. There is benefit in gaining support and clarity about the ending. The second phase of a transition is The Neutral Zone: the in-between time when the old is no longer part of one’s life and the new is not yet fully in place. It is important not to rush through the neutral zone! With this ambiguity, creativity and emergent ideas occur. Psychological nurturing is also a component of this stage. The third phase is when individuals begin to experience positive energy as the excitement of new experiences awaits. This phase is called The New Beginning.

Transitions start with an ending and ends with a beginning! Seems backwards, however, it is true! As individuals experience work changes, navigating this process helps to accelerate the new beginning. To arrive there, it is helpful to experience each phase of the William Bridges’ transition model.

Back of a woman's head as she looks at sunset

Another self-assessment could be to see if one’s talents and skills align with current work and place of employment. Of course, getting paid is important, too, so a Venn diagram that consists of the following is also another helpful reflection point:

1) What you do well

2) What you get paid to do

3) What you love to do

The intersection of these three circles can be the meaningful work that one pursues. Image that! Loving the work we do! It can be done. It means creating an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. Of course, the job you identify at the middle of the Venn diagram must align with the needs of the business strategies and priorities.

Imagine the possibilities if individuals can create the following for meaningful work congruence.

A woman seen from behind as she stands by the ocean.

Maybe by now you have some increased awareness of the ending that needs to take place in order to reach the new beginning. What are some questions to ask yourself as you consider a change in your work life? This self-reflection may help provide some guidance to determine if you wish to pursue more meaningful work.

  1. Am I energized by the purpose of the organization where I am employed?

  2. Do my values align with the values and culture of my place of employment?

  3. Do I get excited about the products and processes that my organization creates? Am I doing meaningful work?

  4. Does my time at work go quickly because I am experiencing joy in my efforts?

  5. What do I need to release so that I can pursue a new beginning?

  6. What can I keep and carry with me to reach my new beginning?

Perhaps you have now decided it is time to pursue more meaningful work. Here are a few ideas to reflect upon to help navigate the transition state:

  1. When I am 90 years old, what will I say about this new beginning?

  2. What would it mean to reinvent myself?

  3. If money were not an issue, what would I be doing with my work life? How can I pursue that opportunity?

  4. What can I do to cleanly let go of the past (physically, cognitively, and emotionally)?

  5. How can my support system help me navigate the three stages of transition?

  6. What will I do during the beneficial time spent in The Neutral Zone?

  7. What vision do I have for my new beginning? What does it look like? What does it feel like?

  8. What emotions am I experiencing as I reflect upon a potential new beginning? How do these emotions inform my decision? How do these emotions inform me?

Transitions are not necessarily easy, but once we emerge, we are typically in a better place. A key consideration is to be patient in this middle phase as the new self takes form. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated: “Not in his goals, but in his transitions man in great.” Are you ready for a transition into more meaningful work that aligns with what you do well, what you love to do, and what you can get paid to do? Are you ready to transition into a new season of your life? In nature, each new season brings new emergence, new growth, and new beauty. The world is awaiting the new you as you emerge from winter into spring!


Gail Townsend holds a Masters degree in Organization Development from American University, a Masters degree in Human Development, and a Doctorate degree in Human and Organization Systems from Fielding Graduate University. She contributed as a global OD specialist, as a global HR business partner, and as an internal educator while employed at Gore. In addition to being a business and cultural advisor at MeaningSphere, she is also adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware and at Colorado State University, Global. Her areas of expertise are in leading change; leadership development; team effectiveness; diversity, equity and inclusion; individual development and coaching; communication skills, intentional use of self; and, as an educator in skill development in these areas. Most importantly, she is the mother of two wonderful daughters and grandmother to four beautiful grandchildren.


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