3 Tools to Help Leaders Steady Their Teams During a Transition


When we experience a big change, we need support to help us make it to the other side. Developmental psychology, and particularly the seminal work of D.W. Winnicott, offers a way to do this: through transitional objects. These objects — whether they take the form of a physical item (like a security blanket) or something more abstract (like a routine, habit, or action) — provide the necessary grounding to help us navigate uncertainty.

Over the course of 15 years and involving more than 100 organizations in seven different countries, my research team has studied the ways transitional objects provide pivotal support between an organization and its employees during times of change in the workplace. For example, when the founder of a UK-based, family-owned publishing house (and avid art collector) decided it was time to sell the business, he offered each employee the opportunity to choose a piece of art from his collection as a gift of appreciation. This act of generosity — and the literal piece of art — provided the employees with something from the past to help them move toward the future.

Not all transitional objects are as clear-cut, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re using them to get through a tough time. But they’re particularly important for managers to pay attention to today, as individuals, employees, and organizations around the globe have been managing through more major changes than usual amid the Covid-19 pandemic. As workplaces move toward a “new normal” — one that is still incredibly uncertain and has undefined boundaries — leaders can deliberately identify and integrate transitional objects for support.

In particular, leaders need to consider three important attributes that help people process transitions: choice, a connection to a purpose, and using something new as a bridge toward where you’re headed. Understanding each of these will help you then identify the types of transitional objects that will provide the best support for your employees over another bumpy year.


Attribute 1: Choice

The literature around a neuroscience concept called neuroplasticity confirms that, in fact, our brains can be re-configured; they are malleable throughout our lives. This means that, in times of change, people are capable of letting go of old norms and embracing new ones. This isn’t always easy; however, research shows change is more palatable if people feel like they’re an active part of making decisions throughout it. A transitional object that gives people choice can provide the support needed between these two states.

In organizations, this could look like giving employees a choice of where and how to work. One of the companies we studied went from a small office space to a much bigger one. Instead of assigning spaces to employees, it gave people a choice of a cubicle or an office with a door. This gave people a sense of autonomy and a clear role amidst a big change – and is clearly relevant today, as companies are making big decisions about where and when employees will be working in the future. In which aspects of this process can you give people choices?

In another example, a team from a Washington D.C. based global consulting firm decided to leave the organization they were working with after an incredibly productive five-year project. Their project team was devastated. To help manage the emotions of the transition, the consulting team’s co-lead proposed several options for a longer-term growth plan the team could carry with them into the future. The team members felt more motivated when they were given a say in their future, particularly from a departing, trusted leader.

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Source: Harvard Business Review

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