In late spring BK Simerson, Ed.D. and I surveyed over 100 CEOs, Presidents, COOs, and senior-level executives across the U.S. representing a slate of industries and professions to investigate their perspectives on the immediate and future impact of the COVID-19 crisis on business.
We received insights from a dozen CEOs and Presidents, thirty-five COOs, and dozens of senior-level executives responsible for operational and functional areas such as finance, operations, manufacturing, marketing, technology and talent.
Our research revealed that relatively early in the COVID-19 crisis:
The investment of time in business continuity planning provided structure in responding to the lockdown.
Open, frank and honest dialog maintained employee engagement and increased productivity during the crisis.
Transparency played a key role in reducing employee anxiety and stress.
Investment in digital technology processes for employees and customers made the transition to remote work seamless.
Approximately nine months into the COVID-19 crisis and six months since we obtained our data, we have been gathering anecdotal information through conversations with our colleagues, students, and clients. One solid and unsettling pattern pertaining to COVID-19 related policies and practices has emerged: people throughout the work world (across all administrative, operational, and functional areas) are starting to experience an avalanche loss of—or negative net-gain in—energy at the end of each work day, whether working in a brick-and-mortar or a virtual home office.
Numerous conversations with practitioners of all levels throughout private- and public-sector organizations suggest that the positive “work” characteristics and elements we previously described have not continued and anticipated positive cultural and practice-related changes driven by COVID-19 have simply not emerged.
Positive impact such as more openness, inclusiveness and more planned and purposeful meetings do not dominate today’s conversation. Rather, we hear that individuals feel apart from others to the extent of feeling isolated, anxiety-ridden, and overly stressed. The magnitude and lengthy duration of the adverse consequences of—and personal reactions to—COVID-19 related changes are beginning to leave people feeling tired, fatigued, mentally and emotionally drained, and in some cases completely exhausted.
Two Ever-Present Facets of Policies and Practices
Some of the “dysfunctional” facets of COVID-19 related changes are not surprising...every significant change imposed on a community will impact individuals and teams, in intended (functional) and unintended (dysfunctional) ways. With that said, the extent of the dysfunctional impact the organizational change is having on people is surprising and equally concerning.
The risks of COVID-19 are real and unimagined. All industries, professions and government sectors are dealing with the effect COVID-19 policies and practices are having on people. Since March, many people have not returned to their office; instead of interacting with warm, living, breathing, 3-dimensional people on a daily basis, individuals now frequently interact with an anonymous voice on the other end of the telephone or a digital representation of the person on the other end of the connection. The daily routine of in-person, face-to-face conversations, interactions, and meetings augmented by countless ad hoc encounters and conversations taking place in the doorway or down the hall has been replaced. Those working remotely experience an endless repetitive cycle involving one’s activating their computer at the beginning of the work day, signing into the organization’s website and waiting to enter a somewhat impersonal “meeting room” in accordance to the date and time stipulated in their “Zoom” meeting invitation. Those with school-aged children at home face even more challenges in balancing work responsibilities with “keeping an eye on” their children’s primary, middle, or secondary e-learning needs while hoping the WiFi requirements of the family do not exceed the household’s broadband capability. For those with pre-school age children who lack a childcare option, managing their children’s needs while working is an even more herculean task. Several people describe this daily drudgery of reliving the same experience day after day as feeling as if they are on the set of—or acting in—the movie Groundhog Day.
The “new” reality imposed by COVID-19 described above is expected to be with us for a while as the Corona-virus is as tenacious as it is insidious. It will continue to evolve and resist as scientists attempt to fight it, suppress it, and/or defeat it. It would be unrealistic and simply ill-advised to ignore the current reality, including the impact it has had on human beings at work. It is essential for leaders to recognize that they can only directly influence and impact internal factors (strengths and weaknesses) and indirectly mitigate or take advantage of external forces (opportunities and threats). Strategic leaders strive to impact what they can control and shift perceptions, assumptions, and expectations of the forces they cannot control.
Our research on COVID-19’s influence on management policies and practices revealed that those organizations rebounding the quickest after the crisis initially hit were those “prepared” organizations who:
Had technology in place that could support the required changes in business practices.
Set the stage for change by communicating, communicating, and communicating to both keep people informed as well as to introduce changes in expectations for behavior and performance.
Although the above-described change management steps led to organizations initially being considered “successful,” we now know through anecdotal information that those steps have not been enough to drive long-term success under the “new” reality. We now must rethink our assumptions, shift our expectations, and identify new ways to drive success in today’s context.
Leaders applying learning and organizational change principles have almost come full circle. The late William Bridges—to supplement “traditional” organizational change—
created a methodology to help people successfully transition from one context to another. The strength in Bridges’ Transition Management framework is that it does not relate to or rely on a certain situation or set of circumstances. Rather, Bridges emphasizes that people must take certain steps to successfully transition from one situation or set of circumstances to another regardless of the situation or set of circumstances.
The organizations initially considered to have successfully addressed COVID-19 challenges appropriately managed “the hard side” of Organizational Change. However, to address the current distress, fatigue and exhaustion, they must properly apply “the soft side” of Transition Management.
The narrative our colleagues are sharing and the story they are telling is not one of their needing a specific solution to a particular problem. Rather, it is their need to learn a tested and proven process and receive the tools that will enable them to personally self-monitor and self-navigate the “treacherous waters” of personal transition. On this front, strategic leaders are encouraged to introduce Bridges’ Transition Management framework to their followers under the assumption that they will find the framework to be immediately useful and beneficial.
In 1993, William Bridges wrote the Human Side of Organizational Change, a landmark book that introduced three important components of transition individuals encounter when working through significant personal change. Those three components are the Ending, the Neutral Zone and the New Beginning. The key question strategic leaders must ask themselves is, “How can I help my followers ‘compress’ their transition time so they spend as little time as possible moving from their Ending through their Neutral Zone into their New Beginning?”
Endings are characterized by feelings ranging from “yearning for the good old days” to ones of isolation, anxiety, exhaustion, and depression. A key realization for the leader and follower alike is that the fear of change typically does not tie to the change itself but rather to the uncertainty, lack of control, and lack of predictability that accompanies it. To help followers work through feelings of helplessness, Bridges encourages leaders to help their followers:
Figure out what is actually changing by first identifying what is actually being lost.
Distinguish between losses and wounds, pain and annoyance.
Identify continuities between the old and new.
Talk “genuinely” with others affected by the change to help them realize that their situation and circumstance might not actually be the worst they’ve encountered.
Recognize that certain things gained might ultimately outweigh things of the old or that which has been recently lost.
Finally, Bridges stresses the importance of leaders (1) helping followers realize that the new reality might not be the “worst-case scenario” and (2) giving followers permission to take the time they need to grieve...and then move forward into the Neutral Zone.
While the Neutral Zone may be characterized by feelings of confusion, disorientation, and fear, it is meant to be a temporary “space.” If properly managed and facilitated, this can be a time of personal renewal, a time marked by creative and innovate thought and a time in which alternative futures, break-through solutions and possibilities are explored. To help followers “navigate through” the uncertainty associated with the Neutral Zone and reframe it as a time to explore new possibilities, Bridges encourages leaders to structure conversations so the narrative and conversation shifts from focusing on the loss to focusing instead on the potential gains and upside associated with the change. Bridges notes that The Neutral Zone is not a time for lamenting on the past or voicing concerns about the current. Rather it is a time to regenerate what was lost to:
A regained sense of purpose and drive.
A new found control and self-determination.
Renewed thoughtfulness and understanding.
New forms of commitment and support.
Leaders have the opportunity—and responsibility—to support their followers as they work through the Neutral Zone, enabling them to regain a renewed sense of control to help them proceed forward into the New Beginning.
The New Beginning is typically characterized by feelings of a renewed, heightened energy level, a sense of new direction and a positive mood marked by a new and energetic commitment to some desired, future state. The New Beginning creates space “for everyone becoming hopeful about the future and being receptive about new, increased levels of effort, contribution, and achievement.” Decreased levels of anxiety and stress along with a genuine feeling of relief and thankfulness typically materialize when one nears the half-way point of their new beginning.
To help followers take full advantage of the New Beginning, Bridges encourages leaders to structure conversations so they allow everyone to explore ways to:
Build or structure a safe organizational environment.
Create a story or narrative to share with others about the journey taken thus far during this change.
Serve as a facilitator, advisor and/or coach to others.
Create a plan for everyone throughout the organization to move forward.
As leaders and followers alike navigate through the New Beginning, monitoring and fine-tuning the plan should include orchestrating a few quick wins along with aligned rewards to reinforce successful change. Although New Beginnings are accessible to everyone, they can be quite challenging and elusive...as some have the tendency to instill fear into our self-confidence and cast doubt on our plans.
Strategic Leaders Must Be Thoughtful and Decisive
During unusual times such as this, the strategic leader—due to their unique perspective, commitment to making credible decisions, and obligation to assess and mitigate risks—is driven to take action that will impact their followers, teams and organization in a positive way.
To further increase the likelihood of your impacting your followers, teams, and organization in a positive manner during this or some other crisis or marked change—regardless of the shape or form it takes—it is imperative that you:
Leverage previously-reported COVID-related improvements in communication, transparency and accountability to impact the greater good.
Take steps to ensure your organization plans, prepares for, and properly manages Organizational Change and Personal Transitions.
Lead and facilitate conversations with followers that are structured in a way that support a successful navigation through Endings, the Neutral Zone, and into the New Beginnings.
The authors are Chicago-based consultants, executive coaches, and advisors who help colleagues, partners, and clients in the private and public sectors achieve short and long-term success through marked improvements in strategy, leadership, and change:
B. Keith Simerson, Ed.D. (BKSimerson@BKSStrategy.org) has provided consultation, executive coaching, and leadership development in the areas of strategy formulation and execution throughout the United States and in Canada, Iraq, Argentina, Poland, Singapore, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Bermuda, England, France, and the Netherlands. He is the co-author of Leading with Strategic Thinking and four additional books including Strategic Planning: A Practical Guide. In addition to his private practice, B.K. instructs graduate courses in the MSLOC program at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. He holds an Ed.D. (concentration in Management and Organization Development) from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a Master’s Degree in Administration, Supervision, Higher Education from Appalachian State University.
Cathy Lieberman, ACC (Cathy@CDLBusinessConsulting.com) is an executive coach and change management consultant. Cathy founded the Chicago Chapter of the COO Forum, an international professional development association and has facilitated over 100 meetings of operational executives. Cathy also serves as a senior consultant with Simitri Group International, a global corporate learning company with offices in 45 countries. Her corporate career includes 25 years of experience leading and coaching managers at AT&T. In addition to her private practice, Cathy serves as the Board Chair of World Chicago promoting citizen diplomacy and welcoming emerging leaders from all over the world. Cathy holds a Bachelor of Science in Quantitative Methods from the University of Illinois, a coaching certification from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and is an Associate Certified Coach with the International Coach Federation.
Special Note: The authors wish to recognize William (“Bill”) Bridges (1933-2013) for his profound contribution to Change Management, the thought leadership he brought to Transition Management and for the countless ways in which he enriched the lives of practitioners, researchers, and academicians. For that and his influence on our growth and development—and thus his influence on this article—we give sincere and heart-felt thanks and appreciation. We encourage our readers to obtain Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes © 1980 from your local library or purchase a copy from the bookstore of your choosing. You will also find the 2nd Edition available on Kindle at Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes.