Real organizational change begins with endings

For people to be able to see themselves in the future, they must first be willing to let go of the past


I spoke recently with a fire service friend who serves as the chief of a smaller department with a long history. He has made several positive changes in the department since being chief, including updating older equipment, modernizing training standards and even completing work on a much-needed new fire station. Yet many people on the department don’t seem happy about the changes. In recent months, there have been more interpersonal conflicts, some of which have led to disciplinary action. There has been some dysfunction in relations with other agencies. It seems like everywhere the chief goes, people are complaining about something. He admitted that, at times, he even considers other career options.           

Listening to my friend, I thought about change management. There are many hundreds of books and articles on the topic, and they all have some value, but I always seem to come back to the simple wisdom of William Bridges.

Bridges has authored several books about change, which he prefers to characterize as transition. In his book “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” Bridges outlines a three-phase process to achieve positive change within organizations. The first step of that process is recognizing that every change begins with endings.

"For people to be able to see themselves in the future, they must first be willing to let go of the past and be ready to move forward from where they are," Willing writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

The impact of change

There’s no doubt that change can be difficult for many – and firefighters are no exception. A new fire station may mean that an old one is closing. A new training standard means that the old way of doing that training is being abandoned. Those changes may represent loss to many people.

Grief is the natural reaction to loss. And grief comes with predictable emotions: anger, anxiety, disorientation, depression. Loss and grief make people feel that they have lost control over their lives, and they may react, sometimes in very dysfunctional ways, to try to regain some control.

All these things can cause real problems when making necessary organizational change. But if leaders are prepared for this initial reaction, they can respond in ways to help those who are struggling and mitigate harm.

Honor the past, focus on the future

Bridges emphasizes the need to be clear about what is ending and what is not. Communication is key in the early stages of change management – and not just a single communication announcing the change. Ask questions. Encourage input and use it. Empathize with the difficulties of the change. Focus on the benefits of the new way and the reason the change is needed. Model effective communication from the top down.

It can help to actively honor the past and acknowledge the loss people might be feeling. Have a ceremony to decommission the old station. Include one of its bricks in the foundation of the new one. Such symbolic gestures may seem inconsequential, but they can have real impact.           

Understand that significant change is hard and takes time. Factor those obstacles into the larger plan. There may be backsliding. There may be conflict. There may be overreaction and confusion. All of this is normal. If it is expected and prepared for, it is less likely to derail the larger mission of the change effort.

Ultimately, that is where the emphasis must lie – with the big picture, the guiding mission. How does this change make us better at what we do? How does it strengthen the relationship of trust and service we have with the community?

Expressing empathy for the loss associated with change should in no way undermine the commitment to the change effort. Bridges states: “The last thing an organization needs is too small an ending or an incomplete ending that requires a whole new round of losses to finish the job before the wounds from the old ones have healed. Whatever must end, must end. Don’t drag it out. Plan it carefully, and once it is done, let there be time for healing. But the action itself should be sufficiently large to get the job done.”

Letting go

When leaders talk about change, they often focus on the future and the benefits that the planned change will have in that context. But for people to be able to see themselves in the future, they must first be willing to let go of the past and be ready to move forward from where they are. Letting go of where you are is a loss, an ending. The best leaders know that successful transitions begin with endings.

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