Recently, I attended a business networking event conducted by and for alumni of a Midwestern university. "Circles,” as it was called, consisted of twelve discussion groups each addressing a different business topic in an hour-long session, preceded and followed by one-on-one networking. (Look for such events at your university when you graduate.) I participated in "Transitioning in Today’s Workplace: How to Move Quickly From Uncertainty to Confidence,” a discussion that attracted approximately 20 alumni who varied in age from early 20s to mid-50s. A talent management consultant and executive coach described William Bridges’ model of transition and subsequently asked participants to relate his concepts to their experiences. Instances shared by group members who represented all phases (exploring, in process, and completing) of work or career transitions, included a woman working in a corporate setting exploring a career move to teaching, a former teacher in the midst of a transition to her new corporate job, a recent graduate trying to decide if a career change within his company was feasible, recent graduates (2009–11) apparently struggling to adapt to their new jobs, and others. It was obvious that all the transitions described involved difficult decisions, created personal conflicts, and carried strong emotional components. Halfway through the discussion, I asked the group if they would have benefited by learning about Bridges’ transition model during college. The great majority, including the recent grads, responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. A summary of the Bridges’ Model follows.
Why do you need to know about transitions? Transitions are an inevitable part of life. If you do not navigate them thoughtfully you might pay an unforgiving price. Recognize that your college-to-workplace transition, at least for younger students, is probably the most important and clearly demarcated change you have experienced to date, but it is just one of many possible transitions to come (e.g., marriage, parenthood, family deaths, unemployment, promotions, serious health problems, divorce, and career changes).
William Bridges was a literature professor who "transitioned” from academia to the business world and subsequently became an author and popular speaker on this topic. He believes that transition involves three overlapping phases or processes: the ending stage (losing or letting go), the neutral zone, and the new beginning (Bridges, 2009). Look at Bridges’ model this way: "Because transition is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world, we can say that transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning” (Bridges, 2009, p. 5). In college the ending phase is usually associated with graduation, but it should begin no later than the end of your junior year as you plan to complete required courses and the internship you need, acquire leadership experience as an officer in a campus organization, and work with a career counselor to acquire career development, job search, and interview skills.
In the neutral zone, you are between two ways of doing things: college is over but your old (often inappropriate) expectations, attitudes, and work habits still linger, while your new attitudes and practices regarding work and daily living are not yet firmly established. You may be searching for or working in a new job, living in a new residence (perhaps far from home), or establishing new relationships (e.g., your supervisor, coworkers, or a significant other)—or all three situations simultaneously. However, you have not completely adapted to, constructed the meaning of, or internalized the demands of these new situations. Bridges characterized the neutral zone as an emotional wilderness, a limbo, a psychological no-man’s land between the old and new realities. Recall your adjustment to college life (especially if you had never lived away from home), including the fears and anxieties you experienced during your first days in a residence hall, new classes with demanding professors, and your first part-time college job. If you are a veteran of recent wars, everything may seem distant, strange, or out of place to you.
Bridges maintains that if you do not understand the emotional disruptions of the neutral zone you could suffer three consequences:
a) You could become discouraged quickly and blame yourself unnecessarily when situations go bad.
b) You could allow your fears and anxieties to drive a decision to escape the situation (e.g., quit your new job, drop out of graduate school, change residence, or end a relationship prematurely). and
c) You could forfeit an important opportunity to learn from your experiences, as challenging as they may be (Bridges, 2009).
As members of our networking group discussed the neutral zone, it became clear this process is the most challenging phase of transition. Participants were asking: How long does the neutral zone last? How does a person navigate the neutral zone? What are your resources? One seasoned participant, Robert Moore (Managing Director of Talmer Bank and Trust) offered valuable insights. He views transitions as a developmental process that has no definitive end point when individuals can "turn off” their attention to the changes being experienced. Furthermore, he believes transition should be approached with two key tools. First, conduct an audit of your strengths. That is, create a list of the personal guidelines and generic skills that have proven valuable in the past (e.g., your abilities to establish healthy relationships; "read” people or situations correctly; and manage your time, energy, and priorities) and then reapply these principles and skills to your new situation. Second, create "managed checkpoints,” (i.e., realistically evaluate your development periodically against a set of criteria, such as the challenge or personal growth your new situation offers, energy required, creativity involved, and your compensation.) To college graduates in transition he recommends:
a) Manage your expectations, especially those pertaining to the workplace.
b) Set personal and professional long range goals.
c) Be cautious about combining the college-to-work transition with other serious transitions such as marriage or cohabitation (People often change rapidly during transition and it is difficult to predict the compatibility of two persons as each progresses through major transitions.
d) Focus on developing your "people skills” (e.g., interpersonal and team skills, emotional awareness of self and others, organizational savvy, and reliability).
Recent graduate Will Vial, consultant at Mercer Investment Consulting, also supports setting long-range goals but with clear short-term plans for achieving them. He stresses the importance of believing in yourself, not taking every rejection or adversity personally, becoming aware of your transitions and the events around you to avoid confusion ("keeping your head on a swivel”), and learning to be "comfortable being uncomfortable,” (i.e., tolerate the uncertainty that characterizes new situations and interactions).
The third phase in Bridges’ transition model is the new beginning, the final process when old expectations, beliefs, and work habits are replaced by new ones that have been internalized by the individual. It may take several weeks or months before you internalize the reality that you are no longer a college student focused only on your personal interests (you are now a member of a team), no longer expecting concrete feedback for every task performed (except for serious mistakes), no longer expecting "right” answers (uncertainty is your daily companion), and no longer able to speak, dress, and communicate as you please (do it the company way). Your new beginning means that you have accepted (like it or not) and internalized your organization’s culture, expectations, and procedures and are "OK” with them. In the new beginning you finally feel comfortable and competent in your new tasks, roles, relationships, or the city to which you relocated. Bridges observes, "Letting go, repatterning, and making a new beginning: together these processes reorient and renew people when things are changing all around them” (Bridges, 2009, p 9).
Does your alumni office offer mentoring opportunities or business networking events? Talk to recent graduates who are in the workplace or graduate school. What did they do correctly? What mistakes could you avoid? What can you do to improve your skills and modify your expectations about life after college before you graduate? You want desperately to avoid the emotional wilderness and psychological no-man’s land of Bridges’ neutral zone. Whether you are one year or one semester away from the end of the ending phase (i.e., graduation) of your transition to employment or graduate school, now is the time to prepare for your journey across the bridge that Bridges built.
Bridges, W. (2009). Managing transitions: Making the most of change (3rd Ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.