Career Transition – Helping Clients Survive the Neutral Zone
By Jennifer Armenta
As Career Services Providers, we have the desire to help others. We motivate, support, share resources and enjoy being of service. We assist our clients in figuring out who they are and what they want. We give assessments to clarify abilities and strengths. We share job search strategies, help prepare for interviews and ultimately help our clients find a job. Having a client succeed at these steps is very satisfying. These results let us know we have done our job.
However, what if a client is not getting the assessments done, not excited about working on his/her resume and most of our suggestions are met with indifference. There could come a time when the provider’s main effort becomes not helping them get a job, but helping them succeed without one.
Transition vs. Change
It is important to understand the difference between change and transition. People often think that change and transition are the same, but they are distinctly different. Change is something that happens outside of us (e.g., losing or leaving a job). Whereas William Bridges (2009), an expert in transition, states that, “Transition is the psychological process that a person must go through to let go of his/her old identity and become re-oriented to the new one” ( p. 67). The Training Resources Group, a management consulting and training firm, describes transition in a similar way, “change is external; transition is psychological” (TRG, n.d., para. 4).
Phases of Transition
Bridges describes three phases of transition that are important to understand as you support your clients through new territory.
Phase 1 – The End – The End is the beginning of the transition phase. During this time individuals come to terms with the fact that they are leaving the past behind. Clients can be confronted with tangible and intangible loss, and it’s natural for some people to be in denial or feel disoriented.
Phase 2 – The Neutral Zone – During this phase one lets go of the past but a set and predictable future has not yet formed to replace it. The Training Resources Group describes transition as “this in-between state where critical psychological realignment takes place” (TRG, n.d., Phase II section para. 2).
Phase 3 – The Beginning – The last phase of a transition ends with a beginning. One’s new identity emerges, there is a new energy and things come into focus. People have a new sense of purpose, goals will become clearer and plans will take shape. This exciting phase is filled with mysterious connections and coincidences.
The Challenges of the Neutral Zone
As we help our clients through these career transitions, some individuals may get stuck in the Neutral Zone. This is the hardest phase for most people. Clients could be dealing with identity issues, feeling unmotivated, anxious or even have low self-esteem. Bridges (2009) also describes how our culture doesn’t really have a good way to talk about the Neutral Zone. So it is a place where most people feel especially confused, alone and vulnerable. The challenges of the Neutral Zone include:
- Identity Issues – This psychological state of limbo, when we have let go of who we were, but haven’t yet discovered the new identity; could leave us with a feeling of loss for the self we have known.
- Low Productivity - People tend to be less productive and unmotivated at this point. Clients may feel stuck, unable to move forward or backward.
- Anxiety – Individuals may feel anxious, depressed, vulnerable and apathetic. They may feel stuck one moment and excited the next. This back and forth is very normal at this phase.
- Low Self- Esteem – Clients will probably start questioning things, which is good, but can lead to self-doubt and uncertainty. From executives to support staff, most people going through a job transition can experience self-doubt and low self-esteem. Clients can question and doubt their own abilities and what they want, worry about finding a job, and feel deflated after being rejected for a job.
Tips for Helping Clients through the Neutral Zone
Although transition has its challenges, it can also be a very positive experience. This is a time where anything is possible… a time for self-renewal, personal growth and creativity. If you suspect that your client is struggling with this phase, below are several things you can do to provide them with the best support possible.
- Honoring the Process – Remind them not to rush this stage, as this is where the creativity and growth happens. Remind them to take time for reflection and solitude.
- No Outside Movement = Inside Movement – It might not seem like there is any movement on the outside, but it is all happening behind the scenes. This is where clients let go, rest and prepare for the new phase. They are internally processing and adapting to their identity. Bridges (2009) refers to this inner transformation as, “the invisible inner reorientation” (p.69).
- Be Accepting - Giving your non-judgmental support, patience and reassurance is the best thing you can do for them. Also, remind clients to seek out support and connect with others.
- Keep Expectations Low - Give smaller tasks that are more attainable. If they have not been meeting goals or deadlines, talk to them about it and ask them what they feel they can do.
As you are working with clients during this challenging phase you can use this information to not only help them, but also as a reminder that getting the job is not the most important thing at this time. Whether they have other support or not, your unconditional acceptance, patience and encouragement is essential to helping them get through this difficult process and onto a successful new phase of their lives.
Bridges, W. (2009). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Da Capo Lifelong Books: Boston.
Nicholson, G. (2016). “Where for art thou, my self-confidence?” she cries. Retrieved from https://gailnicholson.com/articles/where-for-art-thou-my-self-confidence-she-cries
TRG. (n.d.). Transitions: The personal side of change. Training Resources Group, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.trg-inc.com/our-insights/aidstar/transitions-the-personal-side-of-change/
Jennifer Armenta, CCSP is a Career Coach who is in the middle of a challenging career transition herself. She specializes in working with people who need help clarifying their life purpose, who are debating a career move and those dealing with challenging transitions. She has helped many clients live truly authentic lives and supported many small businesses through the hiring process. She currently lives in Oregon with her husband and two daughters. Contact Jennifer at, email@example.com and connect with her at, www.linkedin.com/in/jenniferarmenta.
Paula Brand on Tuesday 02/05/2019 at 12:43 PM
Jennifer, thanks for sharing this post. I appreciate your tips and insights on managing the Neutral Zone. Good luck with your transition.
Jennifer Armenta on Tuesday 02/05/2019 at 06:18 PM
Thank you Paula. I am glad that you liked the article.
Jim Peacock on Monday 02/11/2019 at 04:36 PM
Thanks Jennifer, I am a huge fan of William Bridges work.
I also like to point out that there can be lots of creativity in the Neutral Zone as people have "ended" the last job and before they "begin" their next move.
I like to encourage people to embrace the Neutral Zone for the new possibilities out there.
Nice job summarizing transitions and change.
Jennifer Armenta on Wednesday 02/13/2019 at 12:10 AM
Thanks Jim. Yes, the Neutral Zone can be full of creativity. I have found that once you let go of the past and except where you currently are, the "creativity" phase can begin. That is such a great time, but sometimes hard to get to. For me, it seems to ebb and flow.
Thank you for taking the time to read the article and commenting on your thoughts.
Linda Sollars on Monday 03/04/2019 at 02:08 PM
Such a valuable and timely article, Jennifer! The distinction between transition and change is dramatic but many organizations and individuals want to address the "change" without recognizing the "transition".