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A good time for a (behavioural) change

Conventional wisdom suggests that humans are sceptical of change. 

Everyone has heard of “Change Fatigue” – the sense of dislocation and alienation that supposedly accompanies too much organisational change. But it gets far worse than mere fatigue. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ “5 stages of grief” model, originally intended to describe the emotional response to the news that you’re dying, has been widely repurposed to explain how individuals respond to organisational change. Change as a death sentence is quite the analogy. But is it actually true? 

What if change actually made people more receptive to change? What if times of radical, revolutionary change were actually the best time to change things? 

In January 2020 few could have predicted that within weeks, one third of humanity would effectively be living under house arrest, with schools, shops, restaurants and businesses closed, and streets empty. Yet an improbable chain of events starting in a little-known province of southern China has triggered a global health emergency unlike any in living memory. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is making the unthinkable appear routine. Previously sacrosanct civil liberties have been casually discarded and avowedly right-of-centre governments are rushing through welfare programmes on a scale unthinkable even for radical socialists two months ago.

For businesses, the changes are no less profound. Many will survive only on government life support. Whole sectors of the global economy are at risk as tourism, aviation, retail, education, and hospitality face months of enforced closure. Just-in-time supply chains are broken as centuries of increasing globalisation reverse overnight. Previously insurmountable technological barriers have been overcome in weeks as the world’s office workers move online. 

When this is all over, some of these changes will be undone, others will not. Both history and behavioural science, however, suggest the end of the crisis is unlikely to be the end of the changes, in fact quite the opposite. 

Throughout human history pandemics have always been pivotal moments, “fast-forwarding historical processes” in the words of historian Yuval Noah Harari. 

The “Black Death”, a bubonic plague pandemic that halved the population of 14th Century Europe, with an estimated 75 million deaths, had profound consequences in every sphere of human activity – social, economic, political, religious, artistic, architectural, even gender equality. 

The Spanish Flu epidemic that followed World War I heralded the “Roaring Twenties” – a transformative era of economic boom and cultural decadence known in the US as “the Jazz Age” and in France as “Les Années Folles” (the crazy years). 

This pattern recurs throughout history – profound change triggers more change in a snowball effect. Given what we think we know about how humans react to change this seems a bit counterintuitive – surely “Change Fatigue” should kick in after the seismic upheaval of something like a pandemic?

Behavioural Science suggests that conventional wisdom on this topic might not be so wise after all. 

A number of studies have demonstrated that disruption to one or more existing habits seems to make humans more rather than less likely to change other habits. The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Unit actively recommends trying to time behavioural change initiatives around times of transition such as major life events, explaining “behaviour is generally easier to change when habits are already disrupted”.

Wharton Business School’s Katy Milkman calls this the “fresh start effect”. Humans attach significant meaning to largely arbitrary, man-made categories of time – weeks, months, years, decades etc. or more obvious transition points like public holidays, a change in jobs, or the end of a major trauma like a global pandemic. The end of one period and the start of another is a convenient landmark in time which often acts as a trigger to try and change behaviour. Humans tend to disassociate their past and future selves and use these transition points as an opportunity to move between the two, with the intention of making the future an improved version of the past. There’s also evidence that fresh starts shift mental frames of reference and promote big picture thinking leading to greater acceptance of change. 

In his recent book “How Change Happens”, Cass Sunstein focuses significant attention on the power of “social norms” to catalyse, or indeed inhibit, change. Humans have a tendency to “follow the herd” and are often profoundly influenced by our perception of what others believe about a topic. As Sunstein puts it, “when norms start to collapse, people are unleashed”; a norm-shattering crisis like a pandemic creates a real tipping point for change.

What does all this mean for organisations? 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a pivotal event for the world, bringing immense changes to many aspects of human existence. When the crisis finally ends, the world will be remade anew. To survive, organisations will need to transform, in many cases profoundly. 

The good news, however, is that rather than being fatigued by so much change, both employees and customers are likely to be receptive to it. The end of one thing means the beginning of another and that’s a once in a generation opportunity to transform. To survive in a post-COVID world, organisations need to seize that opportunity while they can and make a fresh start.