The world has not, in most of our lifetimes, ever been so universally faced with uncertainty and change. The threat of COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the world as we know it, and leaves many of us preparing for changes and trying to adjust to new ways of working, to say nothing of new ways of living. How can you prepare for change–particularly change that is ever in flux and unknowable at the same time? At Kotter, we’ve long written about the impact of change and the criticality of leadership through it. We have taken a look back at our own reflections and insights as we make adjustments to how our team works together and with our clients, and we have identified a few key themes to help you prepare for change today and the changes ahead. It is our hope these articles help ease your adjustment into new patterns and behaviors, and serve as a reminder that we are in this together.
Summary of Themes
Dr. Kotter’s latest research explores a two-channel system called Survive and Thrive. There are times, like now, when a Survive response is reasonable, and even needed to prepare for change. While it is needed, it’s important to regulate it as much as possible, because an active Survive response keeps you moving forward, an overactive response can send you into an unproductive tailspin. However, once things begin to stabilize, leaders have a responsibility to shift their teams to a more positive, forward-looking Thrive response. In today’s world, it’s not really a question of “if” or “when” leaders should focus on activating Thrive. If they want to continue to win, there’s no other option but to do it—now.
First, leaders must do exactly that–respond. Acknowledge what has transpired and what it means for the business. People will wonder and make speculations in the absence of direct communication. Create space for the shock to be felt. This is, after all, a logical time to have a Survive response. Yet, the path forward is predicated on how leaders move beyond the fact that the setback occurred, to determining what ought to happen next. Asking “what type of organization do we want to be in this crisis” grounds employees in the organization’s core values, boosting morale in a time where morale may be sparse, and helps define a clearer path forward.
“Change is hard, sometimes unspeakably so.” We so often focus on the positive opportunities provided by change and transformation. The types of change that you’ve pursued on purpose. What about when the change happens to you unexpectedly? Change that you may even feel hurt by? There are some simple and accessible, albeit not easy, ways to begin to unearth the learnings inherent in these moments that have us all feeling as though we’re scrambling in the dark.
A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association revealed that the percentage of Gen Z employees who reported feeling anxious at work was 54%, double the percentage of Baby Boomers at 27%. Right now, most of us are probably feeling a bit anxious about the state of the world and what it means for our work, our way of life, those near and far for whom we care about, on and on. Leaders, in times of change, are far better served engaging those anxious feelings head-on than to hope to mitigate or minimize them with business-as-usual strategies that feign normalcy in a time when nothing feels normal.
“Belonging is rooted in relationship. In a team context, relationships form a web of connectedness that creates a collective identity.” Belonging is more important now than ever with so many of us working remotely. Leaders navigating through this period of change should be working to build and maintain belonging across teams and their organization, beginning with creating comforts as simple as rituals that can be cleverly deployed virtually with a little intentionality. For example, the Kotter team tried out a virtual happy hour this week, and we plan to keep them going.
It’s only natural for teams, like people, to develop habits both good and bad. When preparing for change, the bad habits are going to create or exacerbate barriers. For instance, with a surge of school closures, back-to-back meetings may further challenge some employees’ ability to manage the many roles and responsibilities they have while working from home. Would creating a 15-minute margin help ease those transitions and allow everyone an opportunity to stretch, check-in on a family member, or take a quick walk around the block? Changing or evolving the habits often formed unconsciously over time is going to be critical to helping teams feel successful in navigating their new, more blended work + life realities.