Organizational Change: Planning for a Post-Pandemic “New Normal”
Recognize endemic doesn’t mean non-serious or “back to the way it was.”
Remain thoughtful, flexible, and measured.
Take time to build consensus with employees.
Develop change management approaches that reflect the temperature, fatigue, and emotional overload of your staff.
As we are well into our third year of COVID-19, it’s worth reflecting on where we’ve been. In March 2020, General Mattis commented that the world was flying without any navigational instruments into an uncertain world, unable to plan. Indeed, it seemed that the world was temporarily closed to business as we hunkered down in our homes while coming to terms with a novel virus that has infected 609 million people and killed about 6.5 million folks, of which over 1 million are accounted for in the US with over 87 million confirmed cases (Organization, 2022).
Yet, thanks to capital investments and unheralded speed to delivery of both mRNA and traditional vaccines by private industry working in public/private partnerships around the world, so that even though Omicron variants with an R(0) of 10 results in infections of 10 people for every one person who tests positive, we’re able to move from the pandemic stage to the endemic stage with infections that are less serious and far less damaging. In other words, we’re learning to live with (and not die from) Covid-19 (Sneader & Singhal, 2020).
But this shift from pandemic to endemic isn’t going to happen overnight or all at once, regardless of how we might individually view where we’ve been, wandering in the desert. McKinsey reminds us that individual endemicity generally happens first. You can see examples of record airline travel and crowds flocking to entertainment, sports arena, art, and music festivals.
Next up in the shift is epidemiological endemicity, where COVID-19’s behavior is predictable enough so that our interventions shift patterns like how we manage seasonal illnesses. This includes encouraging employees to get their flu vaccines, staying home when sick, and treating health interventions at an individual level rather than a communal one. Finally, as business leaders, we’re all eager for what McKinsey calls economic endemicity when epidemiology responses decouple from the economy and stop being a primary drag on value creation (Sneader & Singhal, 2020). We’re not there yet. We only have to look at the supply chain, prices at the pump, and the costs to hire workers to see that both inflation and supply chain issues will have a significant impact on the manufacturing, automotive, and technology sectors for some time to come. Now what?
Our shift from pandemic to endemic requires us to be practical while recognizing as business leaders that this shift is psychological. As we’re moving past what has polarized us in society and sometimes in the workplace, we are making choices about how we will coexist with COVID-19 becoming an endemic part of our lives. This in turn is reflective of workplace cultural norms, which may require your organization to speak frankly about implicit or arbitrary policies not openly discussed or embraced. Conversations that deal with questions such as cultural norms about working when sick, work from home policies, and preventative measures managers and peers visibly support.
Or is your organization succumbing to a desire to just return to business as usual? Has a clash of workplace cultural norms made it impossible to talk about what has perhaps irrevocably changed for some without eye rolling, resentment, tempers flaring, and mistrust? Navigating the new normal means confronting the differences we’ve built up over the past several years. It’s been all too easy to characterize our perspectives on dealing with COVID-19 with an “us vs. them” appeal to our baser feelings. This appeal to our emotional responses gets in the way of leading the organization through the endemic nature of COVID-19.
In neuroscience, we’ve learned that our brains are a Bayesian (inferential) prediction machine, and we draw inferences from cues, both internal and external, that, when coupled with our current mood state, prime us for rational or affective (emotional) responses depending on the stressors in our environment. (Shams & Beierholm, 2022).
In the presence of stress (defined as a perception of danger/fear/anxiety), our emotional thinking reinforces perceived or real threats and views new information with suspicion and disbelief. Our goal-seeking activities of the prefrontal cortex are circumvented when the amygdala hijacks emotional thinking by reacting to the cues (internal and external environment) as it seeks to deal with the stressor (Peters, 2016). In short, that’s the problem of us vs. them. In change management theory, problem-focused identification in emotionally charged situations can lead to disaster (Boyatzis, 2015). Think of a town hall that goes sideways or an open forum that devolves into shouting matches, or an open Q&A session with the CEO that results in accusations and hostile exchanges.
At a team level, stress response outcomes can be altered by finding common ground, a common bound, or shared purpose and meaning that elicits positive responses, engagement, and especially laughter (Boyatzis, Rochford, & Jack, 2014). Appreciative Inquiry, originally theorized by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005), is one type of change management technique to move an organization toward finding common ground away from problem identification towards mutual understanding for positive action.
In my leadership legacy course that I teach in the graduate program at Fisher, we talk about the practices of leading organizations through change (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). To navigate this new normal, consider how you need to up your game.
Boyatzis, R. E., Rochford, K., & Jack, A. I. 2014. Antagonistic neural networks underlying differentiated leadership roles. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8.
Boyatzis, R. E., Rochford, K., Taylor, S.N. 2015. The Role of the Positive Emotional Attractor as Vision and Shared Vision: Towards Effective Leadership, Relationships, and Enagement. Frontiers in Psychology.
Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. K. 2005. Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. 2012. The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5 ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Organization, W. H. 2022. COVID-19 weekly epidemiological update, edition 110, 21 September 2022.
Peters, D. 2016. The neurobiology of resilience. InnovAiT, 9(6): 333-341.
Shams, L., & Beierholm, U. 2022. Bayesian causal inference: a unifying neuroscience theory. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: 104619.
Sneader, K., & Singhal, S. 2020. Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal. McKinsey & Company, 5.
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