It was early 2020 when leaders first realized that COVID-19 was threatening their livelihoods, families and teams. Think about where you were when your business operations were shut down due to the virus and what you thought might happen to your business. Because of the uncertainty, how did your thoughts progress? What levels of stress did you feel?
Change is experienced positively when we purposefully change jobs, move locations, buy new technology devices, etc. Deciding to initiate change for ourselves is different from changes that happen “to” us. Intrinsic changes are created by the choices we make, giving us a sense of control and expectation. On the other hand, extrinsic changes occur around us (like the pandemic) and can affect us unexpectedly.
As leaders face extrinsic change, they are often forced to make reactionary decisions to assure consistent business results and productivity. By understanding the cycles of change, leaders can better apply change principles to guide others through difficult times, translating extrinsic change into intrinsic values for all stakeholders.
Changes at work
Behavioral research demonstrates that change can succeed because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to develop new neural pathways as humans continue learning and being curious). The pandemic was a life-altering event. Our neuroplasticity needed to function on all cylinders as we learned to keep up with the constant shifts in our personal and professional lives.
While we often seek out and enjoy controllable changes, such as a vacation, we do not naturally enjoy changes that unexpectedly affect our patterns and systems of living and threaten our work. When the pandemic started, we set hopeful expectations for its duration and severity. Yet, clarity surrounding the virus was lacking, and our business decision-making was impeded.
Dale Carnegie’s research shows that only 31 percent of managers strongly agree that people in their organization have a generally positive attitude toward new information. By learning to adjust to change and incorporate change intrinsically, leaders can enhance their skills and their ability to produce tangible results in unpredictable times. Change leadership can maintain and increase employee engagement. It’s critical to assess what we can learn from the first two years of the pandemic and how that learning can enlighten our leadership through the rapidly changing status quo of our work lives.
Six-month paradigm shifts
A paradigm shift is defined as the time between an extrinsic change event and when a new status quo persists. Six mini-change paradigms are trackable in the time periods after an initial pandemic disruption. While everyone adapts to behavioral changes in their own time, a six-month overview of the pandemic shows a pattern of change we can learn from collectively (Figure 1).
- First six months: March 2020 to September 2020 – Fear (Allow Change)
- Second six months: October 2020 to February 2021 – Fatigue (Rest)
- Third six months: March 2021 to September 2021 – Impatience (Recondition)
- Fourth six months: October 2021 to February 2022 – Rebellion (Thinking with Emotion)
- Fifth six months: March 2022 to September 2022 – Resurgence (Starts and Stops)
- Current six months: October 2022 to February 2023 – Renewal (Healing)
In the following descriptions of each period, consider the associated questions. This insight will facilitate a more productive pattern in the next extrinsic change cycle encountered by an organization.
Fear step: Allow change
While fear was the dominant emotion during the first six months, we decided to fight. We accepted the change as our business reality switched from in-person work to virtual connections with our teammates. The fear step addressed the challenges to our physical well-being, personal safety and social cohesion, so we could maintain productivity.
- What leadership initiatives did you implement with your teams as you pivoted to work from home?
- Did these initiatives dictate and enable intrinsic change in tandem?
Fatigue step: Rest
In the second six months of the pandemic, our emotions heightened as our brains dealt with fatigue. Memories of how it was before the pandemic lingered while we searched social media feeds for positive stories to light the way. The fatigue step of change required a commitment to rest for durations longer than our normal cycles.
- What rest enablers did your company establish in the second six months when virtual meeting fatigue set in?
- Did your team communicate the value of rest to your people?
Impatience step: Recondition
In the impatience of the third period of the pandemic, many drifted into negativism, which can adversely affect personal lives and the future viability of organizations. The solution is to recondition our negative thinking to reset our minds on imagining a future with the potential to yield positive results.
- How did you resolve the negative thinking from your colleagues that permeated the one-year anniversary of the pandemic shutdown?
- Did your leadership refocus the impatience of disrupted teamwork toward measuring new work behaviors between co-workers?
Rebellion step: Thinking with emotion
In the fourth period of the pandemic, the Great Resignation peaked. In Take Command, a Dale Carnegie book, Joe Hart and Michael Crom write, “Stress can feel like a negative emotion when it’s actually a physiological response.” Thus, the rebellion step has its place in the upset of an extrinsic paradigm shift. By harnessing emotions and thinking logically through them, we can make better business decisions.
- Did the balance between talking and listening change in the transition between 2021 and 2022?
- Did new processes, cultural traits, or technologies come forward from within your staff? Did you act on any of these new initiatives and measure the results?
Resurgence step: Starts and stops
The fifth period included the maintenance of the new status quo, while the virus continued to upset the balance of the relationship between work and workers. This “new normal” required constant adjustment. Change fluctuated, and trust in the future required reinforcement from company leadership. To accomplish this, it is essential that leaders seek out and spread the truth, remaining transparent about company changes past, present and future.
- How did your teams address continuous adjustment?
- When did you shine a light on what you did not know and learn from the emotional content colleagues were experiencing?
Renewal step: Healing
In the six months up to now, we are seeing a renewed sense of healing. Many view the pandemic as “behind us” even though we are still dealing with the virus and its fallout. We are accepting change as a part of our lives and moving forward into the future with hope. Diligent leadership is most vital in this phase to paint the picture of a shared positive future.
- Have you compared the work patterns before the pandemic to the new patterns created by the pandemic change?
- What insights do you currently hold that pave your path toward the next positive change cycle you intend to lead?
The pandemic taught us that by consciously focusing on the stages of our emotional development, we can replace fear created by extrinsic forces with an initiative created by intrinsic motivation. We can remove our dislike for extrinsic change and have a more positive judgment that the future can be more productive than the past. When we do this, we will find that as leaders, we can empower creative value for our teams and ourselves.