Embracing ‘neutral zones’: Where honest feedback finds creative solutions

How to navigate that time after changes have been made but before the benefits have been realized

An experienced fire officer becomes the chief of a smaller fire department. He was hired from the outside, but that seems to be a plus here, as the department has struggled for years with stagnating and dysfunctional leadership. Department members welcome him and seem genuinely excited to have new leadership – a new start.

The new chief does all the right things. He recognizes that his leadership represents a significant change and knows that all change begins with endings. He recognizes and honors those endings. He is accessible to department members. He listens well. He clearly explains the necessary changes that will come.

And things go well – sort of. Some department members are enthusiastically supportive and raring to go with new change initiatives. Others, not so much. The chief knows to expect this and works harder to engage those who are lagging in their support.

"Change is disruptive, even when it is welcome," writes Willing. (Photo/Getty Images)

But then the chief starts to notice things he did not expect. Some department members are not just hesitant to move ahead but seem to actively resist change. A couple people who were his biggest supporters early on now seem to have turned against him. New procedures that most members had asked to be put in place are sometimes not followed even by those who promoted them.

The chief is frustrated, discouraged. He questions whether he made the right decision to take the position.

Welcome to the Neutral Zone.

Combatting the inevitable backlash to change

In his book “Managing Transitions, author William Bridges makes clear that all change begins with endings. But you don’t go from endings to new beginnings seamlessly. First you must pass through what he calls the neutral zone, which occurs after changes have been implemented, but before the full benefits of the changes are realized.

Change is disruptive, even when it is welcome. People may get confused about what is expected of them. They make more mistakes. Inherent organizational weaknesses emerge. Groups may become polarized. But this in-between time when the old way is on the way out but the new way is not yet solidified is also an opportunity where creativity and innovation can flourish. New ideas and experimentation can occur more readily if they are supported by department leadership.

Given the right climate, the neutral zone allows for the most honest feedback and fosters creative solutions. However, these positive aspects can only happen if leadership is prepared for this time of transition. The new vision and purpose must remain clear and steadfast, but the ways of achieving goals should not be written in stone.

Follow these simple steps to combat the backlash to change:

Keep lines of communication open. Communication is critical during this time, on multiple levels. Have department-wide meetings to talk about general goals and then drill down when meeting with supervisors. As department leader, make yourself available for casual one-on-one conversations with members at in all ranks and functions. Empathize with the challenge of making the change. Express clarity and enthusiasm for the new plans. Listen.

Ask quality questions. It is also important for leaders to ask the right questions. When talking with someone who might be struggling to understand and accept the new way, people often ask, “Why do you feel this way?” But asking why, even with the best intentions, can backfire. People may feel defensive, as if they are being singled out personally. It may be better to begin questions with “what.” For example, “What aspects of this new protocol have not worked well for your crew?” or “What can we do to make the new engine more functional?” Answers to these questions can be more objective and external and may produce information that can be used immediately to make the change more effective.

Focus on short-term goals. Another strategy that can help with the neutral zone is to focus on short-term goals and incremental steps in achieving the larger goal. People may feel overwhelmed about what is expected of them in the big picture, and this can lead to a kind of paralysis or even backsliding. But setting clear short-term goals and then recognizing when they are achieved can be very satisfying for all involved.

Speak with clarity. Clarity is important in the neutral zone. The larger purpose should never be muddied or compromised. If a department is transitioning from BLS to ALS response, this outcome should never be in doubt. But breaking the larger goal into smaller milestones, recognizing and addressing real issues, listening to genuine concerns that members have along the way – all these things are important aspects of navigating the neutral zone between the old and new ways.

Make peace with change and forge ahead

The neutral zone is often not a fun place to be. But when leaders accept that it is a necessary part of making successful transitions, it can also be a creative, exciting time. Good leadership, at all levels, is critical during this period. As one author wrote, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” Change is inevitable. To see it as an adventure that requires the input and effort of all involved will make the neutral zone a land of opportunity.

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