Friday, March 19, 2010

Managing Transitions: What FYE can learn from the corporate world

Recently I have been reading a book from business literature called Managing Transitions.  In it the author (William Bridges) describes a philosophy and accompanying set of strategies that organizations can employ to successfully navigate difficult transitions (e.g. a merger, downsizing, closing, etc.).  The premise of the book is that transitions, while filled with anxiety and the sometimes debilitating potential for failure, present tremendous opportunities for growth and innovation.

This has been interesting reading for me because my area on campus is in the midst of a fairly dramatic transition.  But, as I read another chapter this afternoon it occurred to me that some of Bridges ideas could be applied to my work in first-year experience.  New freshmen on college campuses look, in some ways, a lot like a mid-level manager trying to grapple with changes in her organization.  Both are anxious and somewhat frightened of the uncertainty that lies ahead, both are probably questioning their ability to succeed in their new environment, and both are likely to brush up against experiences that expose weaknesses and deficiencies.

So, what can those of us in FYE learn from corporate America about managing transitions? 

Bridges' identifies three fluid stages--(1)Letting Go, (2) the Neutral Zone, and (3) The New Beginning (see image below).

 It's important to note that these are not three static phases that are moved through in sequential order (like walking through three separate doors).  Rather, we find ourselves in all three phases at any given point within a transition.  The concept of a new beginning was not new to me--it is where we focus most of our efforts as we design orientations, first-year programs, etc.  However, my sense in talking with colleagues on other campuses is that most of us haven't spent much time thinking about the letting go and neutral zone elements of students' transitions onto our campuses.  That's where I'll focus the rest of this post.

Letting Go.  Among other things, Bridges recommends that those assisting individuals in transition pay attention to what is being lost by those experiencing the change.  What are they giving up?  What are they likely to long for in the new situation?  etc.  The first implication here is that we both expect and accept the fact that most if not all new students will experience some sort of "grieving" during their first year on campus.  For some it will come in the first few weeks and in other cases it could come much later (e.g. after Thanksgiving or Christmas vacations).  But, we shouldn't be surprised or discouraged when we see students struggling with the "I wish I was at home" sorts of feelings.  In fact, recognizing and addressing those feelings is necessary for students to eventually become integrated into our campuses.  At times, those of us who interact with new students (faculty, advisors, residence hall staff, etc.) might be guilty of trying to skip to the "new beginning" without ever allowing students to let go.  One way that this might happen would be to mark the ending in a very public or visible way.  Could something happen during new student Convocation or another part of orientation that ritualizes the ending (this could also more effectively signal the new beginning we hope students engage in)?  Also, could students be invited to discuss with one another or with a peer mentor/advisor the sorts of things they are giving up as they transition into college (e.g. old study habits, friendships, their own room, etc.)?  This could help lead to a conversation about the many things that we provide on our campuses to compensate for these losses--student organizations, academic help centers, residence hall advisors, and more.

The Neutral Zone.  The neutral zone is that place between the ending and the beginning where we are trying to find our place, reframe our identity, and figure out how to make it in our new situation.  It's in the neutral zone where we see students anxious, stressed, ambiguous, and questioning their ability to make it.  And, in some ways, our programs are intended to move students through this uncomfortable place as quickly as possible.  The interesting idea presented in Managing Transitions is that the neutral zone isn't necessarily something that we should try to rush people through because of the opportunities for growth and innovation that it presents.   A quote from the book (p. 52) captures this idea very well:

"The key to succeeding in these efforts [the efforts to help individuals navigate the neutral zone] is to look at the neutral zone as a chance to do something new and interesting--and to pursue that goal with energy and courage."

I like that thought because it shifts the responsibility for success on to the individual and essentially asks "what can you do during this time of transition to grow, change, be creative, etc"  That seems like a liberating thought and one that should be shared with students.  In addition, Bridges recommends that the neutral zone be "normalized" such that it becomes clearly understood by students and others on campus that the transition to college won't happen overnight and won't happen without some growing pains.  Carol Dweck's ideas in Mindset seem like they would have particular application here; in a nutshell she discusses the idea of a "growth mindset" wherein individuals view intelligence and success as malleable and responsive to hard work and practice.  This sort of attitude can help students reframe the way they view failures and help them use the neutral zone and its "failures" as learning experiences that lead to eventual growth and success.  

So, the take home for me was that for FYE professionals to really help students "begin" their college experience, we need to pay a bit more attention to the other two elements involved in the transition to college.  Thoughts?  How are you helping students let go or navigate the neutral zone?


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