It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Transition Cycle

Nigel Nicholson and Michael A. West 1988 – 1990


Nicholson and West make the following assumptions (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 8):

  • Cycles are recurring and their effects accumulate with every cycle – positive outcomes have positive effects on later cycles and vice-versa.
  • The different stages and cycles are interdependent. What happens in one has a significant effect on the other.
  • Discontinuity: every stage has its own challenges, opportunities, experiences and problems

Their work is more related around work role transitions, which brings their theory in closer proximity to career related work than that of Lippitt, for instance. It can easily be applied to a learning context or working with people of different ages, including secondary school students, for instance. Nicholson and West also intended their model to apply to all cycles of change, irrespective of underlying circumstances, context or reasons for change (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 7-8).

The transition Cycle in career guidance theory by Nicholson and West.

Just like Prochaska and DiClemente, Nicholson’s and West’s model is also intended to be, or has the potential to be cyclical or recursive. You’ll notice that the first stage is at the same time the first stage of the new or second cycle. A new cycle doesn’t mean regression or relapse but in a work context means a stabilisation can be a springboard the additional or new change or progression. This is different to Prochaska and DiClemente’s model of change.

The Nicholson and West model in practice (Nicholson and West, 1988)

Nicholson and West drew on a wide variety of evidence and the work of other theorists to draw their conclusions.

Phase 1 – the preparation stage:

psychological readiness is the key concern.

  • Does the client know about what the impending change entails? Were they forewarned or was it sprung on them?
  • How do they feel and what feelings are they anticipating?
  • How well equipped do they feel to cope or deal with the change?
  • What state is their mind in now?

Nicholson and West argue in favour of a an approach that holds a middle position incorporating both:

  • The psychological approach – centred on occupational choice
  • The sociological approach – centred around class based lack of opportunity or increase opportunity

These broad themes are recognisable throughout career theory. Nicolson and West claim that individuals can exercise at least some control over their occupational choice against a background of structural and socio-cultural influences over which they don’t have [much] control (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 9).

For the preparation stage Nicolson and West also drew on recruitment and selection theory, how people form first impressions and how individuals conceive the recruitment process, which they claim has a direct bearing on the preparation stage. This in part at least is indicative of the reference work this is taken of (see below in the references section). The next phase the ‘encounter’ phase, confirms it’s focus.

In practice, I think this stage is one of exploration with the client of: 

  • Where they are, what the change entails and how they feel about the impending changes and transition
  • What their coping capabilities are, what skills they have and what their attitude is
  • their feelings about the transition and for us to offer support where possible in building coping strategies, possibly through reframing and generating positive
  • What needs to happen for the client to prepare for the second stage, the encounter.

Phase 2 – encounter:

Continuing from the previous phase, the amount of ‘reality shock’ clients encounter is a direct result of the amount of psychological preparedness people are able to build up in the first phase (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 8). Continuing their drawing on other evidence they recognise that ‘sense making’ is paramount, which they argue is a function of 3 factors:

  1. Change – objective differences between old status/situation and new status/situation
  2. Contrast – how much is similar and different between old and new situation
  3. Surprise – “one’s negative and positive disconfirmed expectations” (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 10)

They argue that the process is highly subjective, which I interpret as depending on what the client brings to the changing situation out of their experience and socio-cultural, familial, educational etc… background.

A second important aspect of the ‘encounter’ stage is the ‘stress-coping’ view of the client, which focuses more on feelings and emotions. This could include models of grief, such as the Kübler-Ross model. Nicholson and West conclude that stress arises as the function of the magnitude and contents of the demands of the change the client is going through (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 10). It’s important to realise at the same time that changing jobs often comes with a feeling of excitement, as well as stress. Of course, I would argue that the balances of stress versus excitement very much depends on circumstance and the level of voluntary change the client is going through. The situation of finding an exciting new job with increased possibilities and wage is very different from being made redundant with a very limited outlook to finding a new job that is worthwhile.

The encounter stage may in fact be the first time you see the client. This may be because the client is finding the encounter with a new job or position difficult to cope with. You can assume that this is because the transition has been a negative one where the client didn’t have a choice. Much of what I suggested could be discussed in the previous phase could be applicable to this phase as well.

If it’s a continuation of work you did with the client before, I would suggest this stage can be taken up with coping strategies within the new situation, client lead of course. This could centre around coping with:

  • reality shock: this may be an aspect the client hasn’t even thought about, so working sensitively is key. We could verbally role play what the new situation is going to look like. A technique I sometimes use is worst case scenario testing where I discuss with the client what the worst case scenario could be and how they would cope. What techniques would be useful and need to be developed and what skills the client has/or is missing.
  • stress – positive as well as negative: I feel there are two elements to this:
    • emotional support – in which you use good listening skills, affirming language and and understanding, non-judgmental attitude
    • exploration and development of techniques in the client to deal with stress – practising breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, positive awareness etc…

It’s important to remember that work in this stage or phase, will have significant impact on what happens in the adjustment stage.

In the next stage the challenges of coping with the encounter of a new job will make way for adjustment.

Phase 3 – adjustment:

Adjusting is about starting to move on from the newness of the new encounter to fitting in with the new environment and tasks. Nicholson and West propose that there are 3 different highly interrelated levels of integration that need to be in place (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 11). The client has to fit in with:

  1. the new work role
  2. the people the client has to interact
  3. the culture of the new work environment

Nicholson and West make the very up to date (for the 21st century) observation that these adjustments and the change they accompany, are not one-off occurences but are linked to life-span development, happening at any time during someone’s life. They recognise that these recurring transition events have a different impact related to stage of life, age, gender, personality etc…

In my view and experience, the major adjustment, to the new situation, has happened in after the previous stage after which the working relationship is often terminated. You may come across clients however, who no longer can cope with the working environment they are in and are looking for a change. Fine adjustment is not possible for the client anymore. This of course starts looking like the preparation stage again, skipping the stabilisation stage.

They do make a salient point, new at the time but in common awareness amongst most of us, that change and transition is not a one of, when education is finished, occurrence but can happen at any stage of life.

Phase 4 and 5 – stabilisation and preparation:

Nicholson and West argue that stabilisation may in some circumstances never happen when there is a quick succession of transitions. At the same time, if stabilisation is allowed to run its course, this can either be positive or negative stabilisation. Positive stabilisation is straightforward to understand. Negative stabilisation may occur when someone has lost their job and has found a new position that doesn’t validate their abilities, skills and life accomplishments so far. The stabilisation phase is one of finetuning and expanding skills and abilities.

No need to say that this is a very different situation than the one Prochaska and DiClemente describe in their maintenance stage. Situationally, the way we adjust to unhelpful habits or thinking is far more challenging, it can be argued, and very different in nature than the maintenance stage linked to occupational change, voluntary or not.

In their work, Nicholson and West treat stabilisation and preparation for change or transition in one chapter as part of the same mechanism of which the interface is goal-setting and performance appraisal, both of which look towards the past as well as the future when they are married to forward looking review mechanisms (Nicholson and West, 1988, p. 14). This is something to keep in mind when working with clients that a review of skills, abilities and achievements also can and needs to be forward looking towards future change, on top of adjustment to present circumstances.

In this transition theory too, the maintenance stage, comparable to the adjustment stage, is where our work diminishes somewhat, compared to the previous stages. However, negative stabilisation may be really unsettling for anyone and clients with this issue may benefit from the same techniques used in the preparation stage but they may also benefit from grief work if their situation is likely to, or appears to be permanent.



I feel this model has limited validity in its detail, unlike Nicholson and West’s claim of its wide applicability. However, this model is easily applicable to different situations in its essence. I think this is in part because Nicholson and West’s work I used as source material was specifically written for managers changing roles and the description of the model was a precursor for their research. As it is, I think it would need a lot of thought, interpretation and creativity, which I’ve done in part in amber above. So you agree?

  • If not, why not? Would you find it easy to use the model ‘as is’?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses in comparison with other models of change and even motivational models?
  • Most models are cyclical and have different elements they focus on or emphasise. In this sense, which model fits your practice best?
  • Could you apply this model to any changes in your own life? How does it perform? What matches your experience and what doesn’t?
  • As usual, have a look at Brown’s criteria here as well to see how it measures up.


Useful links


  • Nicholson, N. and West, M., (1988). Managerial Job Change: Men And Women In Transition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.