Successfully Managing Transitions: Normal group responses to change

Successfully Managing Transitions: Normal group responses to change

Occasionally I share my space here with relevant content.  Don Ferguson, Ph.D, is a colleague of mine who has some good words to share.  I think in an environment that talks about change, this is not only interesting but relevant to today’s climate.  Read, enjoy, and if you wish to reach Don, his contact information follows this post.  Regards,  Dan Paulson

As part of my work with all kinds of relationships I often present to groups or organizations going through major changes.  What is often surprising to leaders and team members alike when going through a transition is that every change, good or bad, means something different to each participant and presents a threat to some or all members of the team.

I have seen teams, moving into beautiful new quarters, which nevertheless fell into in-fighting.  Team members may also demonstrate an apparently irrational negative reaction to a mild or even positive change.  It might be the loss of a group member, whether or not the group member was well-loved or problematic.  It might be a new group member who slightly changes the milieu.  But, if it can happen with relatively mild or positive changes, think what can occur during moves, mergers, lay-offs, etc.

Managers who are surprised by these responses are in danger of taking them too personally or reacting angrily.  They may feel like they have done everything right for their group, won the good fight and now are getting kicked in the teeth for their efforts.  The team’s reaction feels like a betrayal and the manager’s response might actually intensify the group’s dysfunction.

Here’s the thing. We’re all just human and change always represents possible danger.   You might be surprised at how often I have heard something to the effect of, “I may be allergic to the dust in the old building, fearful of the rats and catching colds due to the broken windows but at least I know where the pictures of my kids go and I am used to the pathway, on the stained carpet, past my friends to the coffee pot.  What is it going to be like when we are in this new monstrosity and my friends are even on a different floor?”  Okay, maybe I exaggerated the old building a little.  But the point is, we respond to change, moves, policy changes, comings and goings of staff, or other transitions, at varying levels of arousal. Some aspect of the transition which would not affect you at all might make me extremely anxious.  This doesn’t make you uncaring or me mentally ill. Our reactions are different for a host of reasons.   It does mean that savvy managers and team members will be aware of this transitional trauma and provide some room for people to get used to things in their own ways.

Individuals and groups respond to tension in some fairly predictable ways.  You may hear rather random or illogical complaining.  You may see tension displayed by the last person of whom you would expect it and emotional outbursts or shutdowns that seem disconnected to the immediate reality.  Change evokes a grief process, even when it is good change.  When challenged, groups may band more tightly together or sub-divide.  They might scapegoat a team member or manager.  There are other ways in which the group might display it’s response to the stress of change but you get the idea.

Managers and team members are best served by preparing for both the mechanics of the move but also the emotional fall-out.  When managers recognize that this is a normal human response and not a personal attack, they will be better prepared to facilitate and manage challenging emotionally charged reactions and keep the group on task.  If you begin to take it personally, you will be less effective and lose more sleep during the transition.  As noted in the movie, The Godfather, “it’s just business.”   The perhaps peculiar appearing responses of your staff and colleagues are mostly just normal and human.   They can be predictable and even helpful, in understanding your team.  Relax, observe and provide some room for individual responses, while maintaining the mission focus, and don’t hesitate to ask for help or mentorship.  This will feel less personal and dangerous if you have someone with whom you can talk about it.  If an employee’s response becomes too disruptive or disturbing it will be even more critical that you seek help from your Human Resources department, if you have one, or from other mentors or advisors.


Don Ferguson, Ph.D., psychologist and marriage counselor, formerly with Dean Health Systems has now opened Infinite Relationships, LLC in Verona, Wisconsin.  Dr. Ferguson has worked with relationships for over 25 years and has written a book for couples, entitled “Reptiles In Love”.  He has also presented to organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada on relationships and group dynamics. Infinite Relationships and Dr. Ferguson can be reached at (608)848-8000 or visited online at