Managing the Transition Through Change

There are two kinds of change – change you want and change you don’t want. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but, according to Tom Meier, an HR consultant speaking at a conference I recently attended, how we manage the transition through change depends very much on whether we view it as a desirable or undesirable change.

Meier laid out a helpful framework for transitioning through significant change – whether it’s a job change or change in the environment in which you work. He said there are four stages in the change process:

  1. Denial
  2. Resistance
  3. Exploration
  4. Commitment

In the first phase, we filter out any negative information and cling to what has served us well in the past. This “honeymoon phase” typically lasts some 90 days at which point most people shift, without any effort, into the next phase.

Resistance is the next phase in the transition process. At this point, our internal and unconscious filters begin to focus on the negative by filtering out the positive. A typical response of an individual in this phase might be “It’s bad and it’s getting worse.” Because much of this phase is reactionary response, it is not a good place for decision-making to occur. It is however a necessary process in the transition. Some will linger here, particularly if the change is involuntary.

The shift to the exploration phase is a conscious process, where the individual begins to look at the pros and cons of the situation. In this phase, there are no filters of either positive or negative information As a result, creative and strategic problem solving can best occur here.

Finally, the last phase is commitment. After an effective problem solving process has taken place in the exploration phase, the individual shifts to embrace the change and rolling out solutions.

Although the presentation was focused on human resource issues, it struck me that it was a timely topic for the legal profession as a whole.

There is no question but that there is a massive shift underway in the legal profession. Driven by consumer expectations and technological innovation, change has come and is ongoing for many within the legal marketplace, whether lawyers, clients, service providers, courts or those who need but cannot access legal services.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Some don’t believe it’s happening, or that it will impact their corner of the world. Others are fighting it, advocating strongly for the status quo. Many are beginning to look at it more closely, considering how they will adapt. And a few have embraced new ways of doing business and servicing legal needs.

All of these perspectives and positions are better understood when viewed through a change management lens. Whether lawyers as a group are change adverse or not, each individual lawyer will nonetheless need to come to terms with the changing nature of their profession and how that impacts them personally. As we do so, we need to uncritically allow space and time for others to also proceed through the transitional phases at their own pace.

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