Leadership and Transition

At a time when change seems pervasive leading teams through transitions has never been more important

Developmental psychology has many uses beyond understanding how individuals grow and mature — it can be a useful tool for helping frame how organizations do much the same.

The parallels between human and organizational growth, evolution, maturity and death are many and its by drawing on these similarities that can start borrowing ideas from one domain into the other.

This is what is behind Victoria Grady‘s work in bringing the ideas of psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott and others to organizations. By applying Winnicott’s work with transitional objects, Grady has been able to create tools and approaches that leaders can borrow to help their teams navigate through transitions. This work is increasingly relevant not only for transitions of personnel or strategy, but as part of the changes that communities, markets, and people as a whole are wrestling with in their lives and work.

Transitional Objects and Their Use

Transitional objects are described by Grady this way: “These objects — whether they take the form of a physical item (like a security blanket) or something more abstract (like a routine, habit, or action) — provide the necessary grounding to help us navigate uncertainty.

The means of using these objects is in framing the routine, habit, action or physical object or setting in three different ways to use as an anchor for discussing and working through issues of change.

The first of these is choice.

As Grady points out, research shows change is more palatable if people feel like they’re an active part of making decisions throughout it. A transitional object that gives people choice can provide the support needed between these two states.” This also means finding choices within the organization and creating the means for introducing and acting on them. It involves getting away from the one-sized-fits-all approach to work toward looking at ways in which choices can be made that are meaningful to those making them.

The second is a connection to a purpose or mission. This might be more complicated for those organizations not accustomed to using mission-driven or purpose-built policies to shape their strategy. What this approach can do is help re-calibrate people when there is a loss of something toward something that is stable, reminding them of the bigger picture.


The third is about creating a bridge between the past situation and the new or future one. One example is the use of technology connecting what was done previously in-person to what could be done at home. To illustrate:

Covid-19 required us to reimagine everything from seeking medical care to educating our children to doing our jobs to grocery shopping. Stepping in to help (with varying success) were technology platforms: telehealth, virtual education, Zoom, and food-delivery services. In other words, technology became a bridge to support our ability to re-imagine “normal” daily life from the hospital to the classroom to the workplace. Bridges like these are powerful because they both expose what’s not working in our societies and also introduce new (and sometimes better) ways to accomplish daily tasks.

A bridge does not have to be technological – it can be social or motivational by connecting a possible win (a hope) to a poor situation in the present.

It’s this third option that, when done well, can create new choices and clarify a mission and purpose and is where design — our creation and creativity — can best play a role. It’s where design thinking and leadership can connect the three ‘tools’ together.

Photo by Sin Flow on Unsplash

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