Understanding and working through the chaos of COVID-19

Even in the unpredictable reality created by COVID-19, our change management expertise puts us in a unique position to help leaders and their employees not just work through the challenges of our new world – but also grow and progress in it.

How can you create the calm needed for growth and progress?

  1. Focus on what you know, what you can do and control
  2. Leave room for human imperfection
  3. Reinforce purpose and progress

In the midst of crisis, we rely on proven management methods and our reserve of human resilience and ingenuity. Though the startling changes brought about by this pandemic are new and at a scale we have not seen before, we find comfort in knowing that not everything is unexpected. The reaction to COVID-related change follows predictable human reactions to change generally.

Having walked with our clients through thousands of intentional change initiatives, we know that even in this unexpected environment, leaders can take action to help people cope – to help them make adjustments to how they think and how they work. However, we also know, that even in the best of circumstances, organizations, leaders, and the workforce at large struggle to adapt to change. This crisis only exacerbates those struggles.

At Expressworks we are doing our part to keep our consultants, clients, and communities healthy and safe. We are also focusing on one of the most important aspects of change: providing clarity to those impacted. Given the current ambiguity of our collective circumstances, we will be keeping the following in mind:

1. Focus on what we know, what we can do and control

Start with yourself

Both behavioral and neuroscience research tells us that change, especially unexpected change, triggers the equivalent of a threat response in our brains:

  • We tend to react instead of act.
  • We rely on automatic responses rather than thoughtful ones.
  • We are physically challenged to respond because our bodies are preparing to address the possible threat.
  • We are more defensive, more anxious, less creative, and less able to listen.

Helping others deal with change requires us to overcome these triggers. Insight and creative ideas come after the brain has had time to be at rest. Ever had ideas come to you in the morning or in the shower? It is the same concept.

Focus on the present

To help us address unexpected change we need to improve our focus. In situations like this, there will be much we do not know. It’s easy to get lost in all the information given to us which can lead to the belief that we do not have control. No one has control over everything, and it’s only in times of panic that we try to focus on “everything.”

We need to channel our focus on what we know, what we can do and control, and what is stable at this moment. Focusing on what we know and what we can control reduces anxiety, dispels our natural threat response, and makes it easier for us to think rationally and creatively.  Although many things are changing, not everything changes. What is still working? What is still intact? What is still in play? For example, the relationships we value most have not changed. This is the time for leaders to engage and attend to those valuable and trusted work (and personal) relationships. This helps both the leader and the employee.

“Focusing on what we know and what we can control reduces anxiety, dispels our natural threat response, and makes it easier for us to think rationally and creatively.”

Focus on the opportunities

In addition, we need to focus on opportunities – things we can run to and not away from. Opportunities may look different at this time – opportunities to complete that long “to do” list or opportunities for professional development or learning new skills. When we begin to look for opportunities and take advantage of them, our brain chemistry changes. We move from feeling threatened to feeling accomplished.

2. Leave room for human imperfection

Humor dispels fear

Holding people to an impossible standard or even just to an arbitrary standard does more damage than good, both to performance and to the person. Leaders can help dispel employee  fear of imperfect situations with humor. We all remember the now famous video of Professor Robert Kelly talking live on BBC. During the interview, his kids found their way into his office followed by his wife who desperately tried to get them out of the room quickly. We all laughed at what was then an errant occurrence, but now many of us are living it. Humor’s great gift is to help us realize that we can be imperfect and still be creative, productive, and part of a team.

Encourage experimentation

Another tenet of behavioral science is that action, particularly experimentation, is a precursor to commitment and adoption of new behaviors. When we experiment with new ideas or behavior, we “discover” them and make them our own. When ideas are our own, we are more inclined to adopt them, stand by them, and make them work.

If we are quick to point out mistakes or negatively reinforce errors resulting from remote working or modified responsibilities, we actually decrease our employee’s ability to commit. Often times, giving people grace to figure out how things work and providing helpful suggestions (not critiques) and support will allow employees to own the change and commit to making it work. New ways of working are hard. As we learn to balance family needs with work needs and technology limitations, we are going to make mistakes. Success right now requires that we make space for ingenuity – new ideas, creative ways of adopting changes, and employees making the change on their own.

“Giving people grace to figure out how things work and providing helpful suggestions (not critiques) and support will allow employees to own the change and commit to making it work.”

3. Reinforce purpose and progress

We, as humans, seek purpose

Purpose may be taking care of our families. It may be working to solve world problems or providing service to others. Maybe our purpose is just to be able to retire. Purpose will differ for each person and may change at different times in life.

Whatever it is, purpose helps us press on during bumpy times. When our actions differ from our beliefs or our purpose, we struggle. Difficult circumstances often ask us to make difficult choices. Do I stay at home, away from people, or do I go to my job? Is this mission critical initiative still mission critical under the circumstances? A crisis can challenge our beliefs or change the hierarchy of our purpose for a time. Leaders should try and point out alignment between purposes. For example, the reason for staying at home is aligned with going to work. It just looks different. Caring for family can be aligned with doing our job. When leaders help employees see the alignment between things that matter, employees are able to avoid rash and often unnecessary decisions.

Reinforcement and recognition are still important

We act based on our ideas, and often we react based on the feedback (or reinforcement) we get. Reinforcing great choices, like showing up to work or even staying home from work, makes it more likely that those choices will be repeated.

When we use the word “reinforcement,” most people immediately think in terms of money. While additional compensation is not a bad thing, it is a fact that some of the most appreciated and effective ways of reinforcing behavior have more to do with non-monetary reinforcements – our brains register social pleasure even higher than monetary reward.

With that in mind, reinforcement under these current circumstances might come in the form of social media “likes” or virtual pats on the back for a job well done. It might be recognition given on a conference call for showing up at work under difficult circumstances, or it might be just a personal call to say, “Thank you.”  The benefits of even small acts of recognition cannot be overstated during this time of physical distance and emotional vulnerability.

These times call for compassionate yet focused leadership

Rarely in our history have our business interests intersected so critically with the health and well-being of our employees. This is a time for us, as leaders, to take the opportunity to become our better selves. Though COVID-19 has upended the world as we know it, it is providing us and all leaders an opportunity to improve the way we meet the challenge of change.

 “Though COVID-19 has upended the world as we know it, it is providing us and all leaders an opportunity to improve the way we meet the challenge of change.”

For our part, we at Expressworks will continue to stay focused on the health and safety of our consultants and remain steadfast in our efforts to help our clients innovate and progress amid uncertainty.

Managing Partner
Managing Partner

Stephen Zaruba
Managing Partner