If I got a euro for every job description I have read with “candidate must hit the ground running”, my charity bucket would be full to overflowing. I often wonder if we understand the power of the language we use and the unintended consequences.

In every aspect of life, we go through phases. From birth to older age, we are growing at a phenomenal rate, not just physically but emotionally too. We encounter new challenges, opportunities, and obstacles, and our wondrous plastic brains assimilate and integrate what we learn. We develop new skills and soon the activity that took so much time to learn has become a second skin. 

Thanks to our previous experiences, environments, and observation; combined with ambition and true grit, we often look like we are excelling in our new position. Due to our competence and productivity, we gain star performer status at the office.

Unfortunately, this shiny status can come at a cost later, as inevitably the exertion and effort will catch up; often leading to a drop in motivation and enthusiasm. And in severe cases, burnout, and exhaustion.

Think of it this way: The new hire you made last summer has aced every activity and target set. It is now January, and the candidate looks lackluster. Performance review season is on the horizon and this individual’s future is in doubt. No one can understand why this has happened, it seems so out of character.

Another way to look at it is the candidate did exactly as required. They hit the ground running and exerted a significant mental and emotional load to achieve it. Now they have come to a natural dip and will need some time to adjust.

This phenomenon occurs with teams and organizations just as much as individuals. You may have noticed that a certain team has performed incredibly well over a period and for no apparent reason, conditions have remained the same, the energy is just not there. And we wonder what could have possibly gone wrong.

As humans, we are not adept at understanding the nature of this daily reality. We start a new job and give ourselves a hard time because we’re exhausted at the end of the week. We land a promotion and chide ourselves because we haven’t completed every action perfectly. 

Understanding the transition cycle would help enormously here, firstly to gauge our performance fairly and secondly, to understand how we behave and react to change. 

For leaders, understanding the transition cycle helps inform how to think about performance. To ask open questions and to consider that a drop in motivation could be the transition cycle in action.

What Is the Transition Cycle?

The transition cycle is what happens internally as each person encounters change. It is the predictable ebb and flow. It’s also the dialogue in our minds, our self-talk, and how we perceive the situation.

According to William Bridges* there are three predictable phases to any transition process: (see the graph below).

Fig. 1. The transition cycle – a template for human responses to change (Williams, 99)

One example is how we speak about the honeymoon phase and know it will wane in time. The overall process goes something like this: We start with great excitement, before encountering our first setback, moving to uncertainty and doubt.

Sometimes we reach a crisis point. This experience teaches us acceptance and motivates us to explore new pathways. Eventually, new confidence emerges, and we move back to the top of the cycle. This journey is individual, and the length of each phase is deeply personal.

Of course, the converse is also true. We may well begin a new job with excitement and our individual experience may take us to fear and anxiety. Without support, the crisis may extend or we leave. Otherwise, we learn from the experience and recover a new sense of confidence; moving back up the scale to a greater sense of well-being. This cycle continues with changes throughout life, both big and small.

Why Do We Need to Know About Transition Cycles?

When it comes to hitting the ground running, we realise that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We also know that actions, like the language we use, have unintended consequences.

Undoubtedly, there are times when staff must put in extra effort, take on additional duties, and fight fires. In times when resources are under threat, this becomes even more acute. However, it should not be the default expectation.

If your job description includes “hitting the ground running”, consider you may be expecting that person to work in constant survival mode.

If you don’t put a time limit on this phase, communicate clearly why the situation demands this approach, and how you will support your teammate to succeed in this task; you risk losing them.

Survival model takes more energy than you can possibly give. We owe it to all of us to take care of each other, and not set unreachable demands – even unconscious ones. This goes for the CEO as much as anyone else.

It takes considerable time and money to hire and nurture our teams. If the culture is overwork, attrition levels speed up. More sick days, and more disgruntled staff, the more general irrigation and frustration grow.

In this way, it is important to check our expectations and language at the very beginning. If we do need our teams to hit the ground running, how long do we expect that to be the case?

Do we ensure that the team takes all holidays due and are we modeling good behaviour around our work week and workload? 

Is there a fair distribution of work across the team, or do we “dump” on junior members of staff? Do we expect high staff turnover and put it down to frailty and laziness instead of looking at our own practices?

These are incredibly important questions to ask because it gives us an opportunity to reflect and integrate lessons learned, to gain understanding and perspective from them.

This is the work that makes great leaders.

We can only hit the ground running for so long. Our best people quit. Some leave quietly and others exit our industries never to return. The collateral damage to individuals, families, organisations, and society cannot be overstated.

But we can do something about this incredible amount of pain and suffering if we are open and honest and check our expectations and language.

Language is important. Some questions to consider.

As the conversation around the four-day workweek grows, and hybrid work becomes more commonplace, our language, work practices, and cultures will determine our success. Happy to hear your thoughts.

Reference: * Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. By William Bridges, Susan Bridges, 1995

By Mary Carty