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Crises make change happen: 4 steps to make it sustainable

Racing against the clock to manage a crisis, while going through changes that the crisis exerts, is like a mathematical equation when two double negatives cancel one another out to produce an affirmative.

Almost overnight, the current Covid-19 crisis has forced thousands of organisations to drastically switch to different ways of working. Changes that finally happened, yet some people would ask, “what does it take to make it last”?

Crises make change happen: 4 steps to make it sustainable

Almost overnight, the current Covid-19 crisis has forced thousands of organisations to drastically switch to different ways of working. Despite some relative minor changes to work habits that have occurred over the past decade, neither employees nor leaders in these organisations had found the will to make the adjustments for adapting to the way our modern societies operate.

As a result, a common whispered question has spread out among these organisations: “why did it take a crisis to make structural and operational changes”?

Attempting to bring a response to that question we need to consider human behaviours and how they exert influence upon the management of the organisations.

Human psychology footprints the organisational change strategy

Succumbing to change does not only happen when crises strike but also when there is no other option left on the table. Making change happens, will come down to the mindset of the organisation and how the management perceives the situation. The ‘option’ of change comes as a last resort. Change is intrinsically linked to human psychology and unconsciously correlated with a negative sentiment, until it is proven to be positive. The mind directly focuses on the losses and sacrifices that change(s) imply, rather than looking at the solutions and opportunities that change(s) bring along. Why is that so?

Humans are hardwired to resist change

Changing habits mean getting out of a comfort zone which, in turn, induces a threat to safety and security. The amygdala, located in the brain, creates that threatening feeling. It is the receptive command centre for our emotional reactions. It interlinks memories with emotional reactions and replicates our emotional reaction to past events when confronted with similar events in the present. Unfortunately, it records the emotional reaction related to the negative events five times more significantly than positive events. This survival mechanism is a great tool for big threats but can diminish our reasoning and appetite for change with excessive fear, anxiety and phobias.

On a working level, the major challenge ahead is the “change battle fatigue1”. It results from an accumulation of past failures plaguing the minds of employees and the sacrifices made during the arduous change process in which very few gains were observed or communicated. Consequently, employees grow cynical about change. Moreover, it unconditionally wipes away the current rewarding system of which they are used to. Change is a long-term investment in which rewarding effects are delayed. It is therefore essential to implement change gradually by phasing in a mix of tradition with innovation.

4 stages of change

Change should be considered as a progressive tool. Change takes several stages, namely: contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

The contemplation stage of change is characterised by having further insight and awareness into the process that is up for debate. When a crisis strikes, the contemplation stage is considerably reduced. There is a collective agreement that the crisis leads to forced changes of the organisation. However, the challenge will come from elsewhere. People fear for their stability (income, family stability, career prospects, etc.). When people let worries, fear and doubt linger in their thinking they literally struggle hearing or thinking properly. As such, it is much harder for them to take in important information when their minds are otherwise operating from a more primal brain function. This can undermine the focus and productivity of employees at a time when the organisation needs them the most.

It takes strong leadership to guide staff members with good, reassuring and positive communication. The positive communication should encompass the advantages and disadvantages of continuing with the current (status quo) and with changing – disclosing both scenarios with the expected outcomes. An analysis of risks and change is required to move cautiously, with solutions in place, to overcome obstacles that resistance to change could create.

The preparation stage is characterised by mitigating fear and fatigue so that the focus remains high. The preparation stage is similar to an athlete training for the Olympic Games. It takes disciplines, vision, purpose and consistency. This stage is of the utmost importance and people often only realise its importance retrospectively when facing the disruptive events.

The action stage is characterised by the implementation of the change. In this process, leading by example is crucial. The efforts made by the different parties should be praised and recognised to help that phase crystallise and pass from action into full implementation.

The maintenance stage is the hardest. People want to see short-term return on their investment. In other words, people want to see, quickly, that their efforts paid off. Being mindful of people’s feeling to retain the focus on change is crucial. Quick-wins and early victories are to be identified and broadly communicated across the organisation. This will hence trigger positive emotional reaction and identification with the process of change. This will also imply less fatigue risk and increase the buy-in.

Crises make change happen, but enduring only if sustainable

When a crisis hits, those four essential steps are often overlooked. Based on the fear of ‘losing face’, leaders tend to dish out recommendations almost overnight on how to improve the situation without considering the importance of vision and support. In those cases, the anxiety for change and the old procedures will be more attractive and a strong resistance to change will root in. The organisation then enters into a schizophrenic position with a duality between implementing change fast, to save the reputation, whilst making it sustainable and smooth for the staff. As a result, the crisis can become larger and creates further internal chaos.

Besides dealing with the crisis itself change increases other issues, such as stress. Stress brings along many negative aspects for an organisations’ performance, hindering productivity and creation. In our fast-paced and volatile environment, creation and innovation are key to the survival of organisations. Coming up with new ideas which are sustainable and effective is not as magic trick, an illusion, or as quick as the blink of an eye. Giving time to perceive them (ideas), reflecting over issues, and bringing solutions come mostly when we are in a creative mode. It is rarely the case that new, quality ideas arise when we are in our working environment, conditioned by the same elements and unconsciously pressurised to prove that we are doing something tangible at our desk. Having the opportunity to work from other premises at a customised pace is profitable for letting ideas float up and then fishing out the opportunities. However, when organisations are under pressure, due to disruptions, there is little space and time for creation and innovation. The rapid, yet often required, adaptations pose greater risk to weaken the sustainability of change.

So, crises do help change to happen, they however weaken their sustainability due to swift actions taken to tackle the crisis.

If you want to navigate a crisis smoothly you need to be agile and consider the four steps with an appreciation of their effects relative to the timing of their implementation. While investing time in overcoming the crisis, there shall be a human-centric approach to it, backed-up with positive communication, a clear vision, a supportive management and a stress-free atmosphere inclined to creation and innovation.

Together, and followed appropriately, those elements have never failed the transformation of an organisation. Investing in auditing your risk landscape, in business continuity and in real-time crisis management support will have many more benefits than just a business robustness. It helps the organisation navigate through an all-seasons weather forecast and still guarantee a station at the dock.

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