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Become a Strong Driver of Change: Lessons From a Global Pandemic

The word “unprecedented” is thrown around a lot when talking about what we’re living through right now. The last few months have been a time of upheaval for us all. Our personal, work, and social lives have all been turned upside down or, unfortunately for many, have been disconnected completely. As citizens of a global community, this is a new experience for many of us. Certainly, humans have lived through trauma akin to this before. Thankfully, we have learned from their experiences and are able to draw from them to take the right actions now. We are also learning things now that will help future generations weather the storms they’ll face.

Adversity propels growth by forcing us to adapt and innovate out of necessity. As a change practitioner, this global pandemic has offered a truly unique learning experience, albeit one I know none of us wanted to face. During this time, I have experienced and led changes with my clients, my GP Strategies teams, and even my personal life. Through those changes, I have seen the pitfalls of thinking about change in the traditional way—plan, manage, sustain—and instead embraced a more modern and nimble change approach focused on the preventative, proactive, responsive mindset. Preventative work is about predicting risks and points of failure and ensuring they don’t happen; being proactive is about having plans to set up the environment for the changes you know; being responsive is about having an openness to change plans.

This pandemic has shown me the value of extraordinary change management and how a mindset shift from the old, stagnant change approach to a preventative, proactive, and responsive approach transformed my thinking and helped me grow as a change professional in four key areas.

1. Uncertainty is a certainty; plan for it.

A major hallmark of this pandemic has been all the uncertainty surrounding every part of our lives. Mundane tasks we used to take for granted, such as asking ourselves how safe it is to go to the grocery store have made us think differently about nearly every decision we make. Larger decisions will impact many businesses for years to come, forcing them to ask themselves if their strategies are aligned to the needs of their customers and employees. That is a lot of disruption to face.

Early in the pandemic, I found myself nearly paralyzed by the difficulties of making decisions in the face of so much uncertainty. The “what ifs” swirled constantly and that churn made me feel like I was always wading through quicksand. Then I heard a podcast host ask a question that cleared a path through all of that chaos: “Uncertainty has been a bedfellow for human beings for all of our history. So, why are we all freaking out now about not being able to predict the future?”

Thank you, Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth for that little push—that one comment made me rethink what I was experiencing and how I was reacting. Uncertainty is a constant in our world. Unquestionably there is much more uncertainty readily apparent in what we’re facing now, but it isn’t something new.

Now I am drawing on my experience as a driver of change and working to embrace that ambiguity. Admittedly, some days are harder than others. The stress of the early pandemic reverted my tired brain back to the old way of thinking about changes—plan, manage, sustain—even when I knew that wasn’t a viable way to think about it in this ever-evolving world we live in. But, sometimes, brains have a mind of their own…

Knowing that uncertainty is always going to be a constant, I’m redoubling my efforts to recognize when my clients or I are falling into the old plan, manage, sustain trap. Instead, I’m refocusing my sights on the preventative, proactive, responsive mindset. As an example of that shift, I joined a client team in early March, the week before stay-at-home orders hit most cities in the United States. The client was set to go live with a new employee learning platform. They had been preparing for the go-live for months and were set to turn the switch on in mere weeks. But stay-at-home restrictions changed entire businesses nearly overnight, leaving the team to decide how to move forward. There were two options: maintain the chartered course and go-live as-planned or respond to the new context and incoming data about how the workforce was struggling to cope with the new day-to-day. Ultimately, the team decided to change the plan by pushing the system go-live to be responsive to the needs of the employees and business. Of course, that meant that we had a whole new set of potential risks—and those risks changed often—to anticipate and preventatively mitigate. But by framing the change through a flexible, more forward-thinking lens, we were able to better support employees and deliver better value to the business.

2. Capable leadership at all levels is nonnegotiable.

A good leader, no matter where they sit in the organization, is critical in tough times. In good times, it can be easier to overlook lackluster leadership. But when things are difficult, the cracks in the foundation become apparent. In change leadership, a good leader is one who has a preventative, proactive, responsive mindset and can meet the new challenges of day-to-day work in this environment.

Neuroscience research tells us that uncertainty, like what we’re facing now, triggers a threat response in our brains. That threat response is harmful because it causes emotional and physical stress and negatively impacts our decision making. As leaders and drivers of change who are thinking preventatively, proactively, and responsively, we need to create certainty where we can, even if it is in small things, like schedule consistency or a daily wellness check-in. And when it comes to “bad news”, don’t hold onto it waiting for the “perfect” time to announce it. Human imagination is wondrous and creative. Unfortunately, this means speculating on what might be, causes a lot more stress and harm than simply knowing the facts. Just make sure to deliver the message empathetically with the psychological well-being of the recipient in mind.

Relatedly, good communication rarely happens in an email. The most impactful leadership moments I have seen have been when a leader intentionally opened the door to have transparent and honest conversations. Sometimes, that even requires saying, “I don’t know. I’ll get you an answer”. As leaders, we find it hard when we don’t have all of the answers, but if there’s anything we should have learned from this experience, it is that no one person can know the right answer all of the time—and we have to be okay with that. Sometimes, we are wrong. Mistakes are made. Data are missing. But a good leader knows how be responsive, to own those mistakes and move on.

Additionally, in the suddenly virtual working world we find ourselves in, it’s worth taking the time to proactively call or video chat to have some of these conversations. In a virtual environment, we lose the opportunity for the informal “hallway” or “watercooler” checks we would have had before. With technological distance can come feelings of isolation, so we need to remember to reach out to create those connecting moments outside of formally scheduled meetings. Feelings of personal connectedness, especially with one’s manager, is important for employees to feel engaged and keep burnout at bay.

My colleague Leah Clark has some wonderful additional guidance on leadership during COVID-19 that I recommend you check out.

3. Manage change fatigue by avoiding a piecemeal approach

As change practitioners, we often talk about change saturation and change fatigue with our clients. We work to not overwhelm employees with too much at once. But the sudden onset of changes resulting from COVID-19 was something that few of us expected or were prepared for.

Over the last few years, I have heard consistently from clients, “We’re changing more than ever before. Our people are experiencing a lot of change from all sides.” This pandemic highlighted for me the importance of the change saturation conversation and how we need to be more thoughtful and proactive about the environment and context in which we’re operating and communicating.

The first step to combating change fatigue is to take a preventative approach by holistically planning for and managing organizational changes. This should start at the leader level with sponsors engaged with each other and their colleagues. This may spur some difficult questions like, is this a strategic change? Is it business-imperative right now? How will it impact our employees and customers? I’ve seen many clients take a piecemeal approach to change—Payroll is rolling out a new system, Performance Management is modernizing their approach, Marketing is reorganizing, Sales is debuting a new engagement model—but none of the change teams are coordinating to understand the combined and cumulative impacts to the business and its employees. A truly coordinated, preventative approach to change allows leaders to predict risks and points of failure and ensure they don’t happen.

Change saturation also needs to be measured. Gathering data on change saturation is a level beyond what many organizations commonly measure, but doing so allows leaders to be responsive to employee needs in real-time before and during the change. Frontline employees and stakeholders are a key resource to understanding the real change experience. There are a lot of formal methods to gather this data (surveys, interviews, champion networks), but don’t discount the informal interactions as valuable information sources.

4. A global mindset is critical—and it will never not be.

We are global citizens living in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent world. Our organizations are, too. That means that what is happening in another state, region, or country does impact us. We’ve seen this play out clearly during the pandemic. We witnessed firsthand nearly the entire world come to a standstill, causing regional and international disruption of supply chains in our grocery stores, critical medical and safety equipment, manufacturing, and so much more. Overall, as leaders of business and change, we all need to grow our cultural competency and global awareness. Our interconnected, global lives are not a fading fad.

This has highlighted for me two valuable lessons: One, always pay attention to the broader context—what is happening elsewhere does have impacts the world over. Having this broader perspective will help you be better able as a leader to take a preventative approach by giving you the information you need to predict risks and take actions to safeguard against negative effects.

The second lesson is that a one-size-fits-all approach really doesn’t fit anyone. Cultural and regional differences impact how each of us responds to change. Your plan should be proactive in that it is dictated by both the change itself and the affected participants, which may mean that it will involve a variety of approaches to meet the needs of different audiences. With localized change plans, we should also be focused on localized acceptance and resistance data.

Learning is richer when it is shared—I want to hear what adversity has taught you about being a change leader! Comment below or send me a message.

About the Authors

Valerie Brophy
I’ve always been interested in people—specifically what they do and why they do it. My family jokes that I was “born a psychologist, but not the therapy kind of psychologist.” So, when college came around, psychology seemed a natural fit. But so did business. I said that I would decide between the two before graduation. Then graduation was looming nearer, and I was no closer to choosing between my interests. A chance comment from a professor helped me realize I didn’t need to choose. And that’s how I became an industrial-organizational psychologist. Throughout graduate school, the question that kept me going was, “How can I make work better for the people doing it?” That led me to my first internship studying employee engagement. Then, it led me to consulting, were I interact with and affect actual people every day. That question is still what energizes me daily and fuels the passion I bring to my clients.

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