We teach William Bridges’ Transition Model in our signature programs to illuminate the process that human beings go through as they experience change. A change—the thing that happens—is a clear and obvious event that occurs when something old stops and something new begins.
And the transition is the correspondent process that people experience as a result of the change. During the course of any given change taking place, there are people who will “win,” those who will “lose,” and others who may have a more neutral experience. The transition process is personal and quite different for everyone. Some may go through it relatively quickly, eager to move into the new beginning, while others may languish in the emotions and challenges of the ending. Another group might get stuck in the neutral zone—the in-between time that can be chaotic and confusing.
When we don’t acknowledge, honor, and attend to the individual human dynamics of transition, our change initiatives tend to be more difficult and painful than they need to be, or even fail entirely. We can have the best plan and processes designed but, if people are not on board, it is impossible to succeed.
There are times in which our typical ways of interacting and communicating—of delivering our message and executing our plans—are inadequate for the circumstances. Especially during crucial periods of change and transition, we may need to address the deeper aspects of people’s humanity to get through.
Symbols, metaphor, ritual, and ceremony all speak to the subconscious mind, beyond our typical day-to-day modes of thinking. A growing body of research reveals the positive impact of employing these tools in our work lives. They inspire understanding and meaning and can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. The outcome can even be “collective effervescence,” a dynamic described by sociologist, Émile Durkheim—a powerful sense of positive group unification.
A symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something else, perhaps a material object pointing to something abstract.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes something in a way that is not literally true, but helps to explain by drawing a comparison to something familiar and known.
A ritual is an act or practice done with intention and meaning, often in precise steps following a specific protocol, or regularly repeated over time.
A ceremony is an event that encompasses ritual actions so people can participate in a meaningful transition or milestone.
Symbols. Humanity has always used symbols to express abstract qualities that can be difficult to describe or understand, such as truth, honor, justice, heroism, love, wisdom, forgiveness, or courage. Symbols help us go beyond what is obvious, helping our minds to create links to different ideas and experiences.
Think, for example, about company logos. They often use symbols to convey something about the organization’s mission or purpose without words. The most impactful symbols in an organization can come from the group’s shared values or experience.
Metaphors. Metaphors can be a colorful way to convey in language how one thing is like another, especially when we are trying to explain dry, complicated ideas. Using these kinds of comparisons can help us express ideas and solve problems in creative and innovative ways, making our message more memorable. Think about “silo-busting and bridge-building,” “time is money,” “thinking outside the box”—all commonly used business metaphors.
A leader could stand up and drone on about how important it is for work to get done quickly. But, instead, using the phrase, “time is money” gets the point across in a succinct and understandable way.
Rituals. We may associate the term “ritual” with religious practice; however, the practical employment of ritual can go far beyond the church or temple into the everyday business world. Workplace rituals can help to deepen your employee engagement, enrich your company culture, and create a greater sense of belonging, connection, and participation by actively involving people in meaningful, intentional actions.
Psychologists have discovered that the power of ritual derives from their ability to link the physical with the psychological and the emotional. A recent review of scholarship on rituals found that the actions of physically going through rituals can:
- help people feel satisfied and in control
- regulate people’s emotions, keeping them calm
- regulate people’s performance, helping them to act in a steadier and more focused way
- regulate people’s sense of belonging, giving them a stable feeling of social connection
Source: Rituals for Work, Ozenc & Hagan
Some exciting ways to employ ritual in the workplace might include welcoming a new employee to the team, celebrating project milestones, holding regular team huddles, creating space for deep concentration and focus, and intentionally honoring endings.
(For much more on this topic, visit Ritual Design Lab.)
Ceremonies. Through ceremony, we create and participate in an event to honor a significant milestone in the organization, allowing individuals to express emotion collectively. Ceremonies are a way to strengthen the values of the group and deepen cohesion.
They might be used to mark the retirement of a dedicated employee, achievement of an important team award, or even something “smaller” or more “ordinary,” such as hitting quarterly targets. Company ceremonies can range from lavish annual black-tie affairs to simple budget-neutral Friday team lunch potlucks or high-fives during a meeting. The key is taking the time and space to notice and acknowledge the events and milestones that have meaning for group members and giving them an opportunity to actively participate.
Employment of symbolism, metaphor, ritual, and ceremony can have a significant impact on your organizational culture, the way in which people glean meaning and a sense of belonging in their workplace, and the ease with which individuals move through change and transition. Consider how you might use these powerful tools to enrich a sense of teamwork and collaboration and smooth the glidepath of change and transition throughout your organization.