Like most, my life and universe have been directly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on families, jobs, teams, roles, finances, and the economy are immense, and the fallout from the crisis has only just started making its effects felt. In real time, COVID-19 has transformed human behavior, interactions, and the rules of engagement at the workplace, making remote work and change management paramount.
This crisis is also providing brand new insights into how people can adapt at scale and speed, and with remarkable efficiency and resilience, especially with remote work. That, incidentally, is also my holy grail as a change management professional.
Resilience is typically defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or to spring back into shape.” In the field of change management, resilience is the ability of an individual or a workforce to seamlessly shift and adapt to a challenging new environment, job, or set of circumstances. Creating and engaging resilience is essential in driving change management efforts. But resilience is also incredibly hard to engage. From my observations of the past few weeks, I have captured four key lessons on what the current crisis is teaching us about resilience.
Lesson 1: Resilience is experience-based
Our ability to deal with the new rules or the “new normal” is directly connected to how we are experiencing the impact of the virus. If we or a close family member is sick, our emotional and rational experiences will be dramatically different from someone with no direct “exposure” to the impact of the virus. And the more this happens, the harder it would be to find a common ground to discuss how we can sustain change through astute change management. The more we push one opinion, the more the other side would reject it.
The takeaway for organizations is that they need to establish a foundational understanding of the current pains/issues and a course of action that will address them, before they can ask their workforce to adjust and change.
Lesson 2: Crises provide short windows to engage resilience at scale
Early on, when the pandemic was growing dramatically by the day, most people accepted or even embraced new rules for quarantining, shopping, and social distancing. Global companies shifted hundreds of thousands of employees to remote work to continue serving their clients. Small businesses adjusted too, creating new revenue workstreams when traditional ones were no longer feasible or available. What I found most telling was the willingness and speed at which most of us adjusted. The mobilization around a common goal (“flatten the curve,” for example) created a giant wave of immediate change.
Most organizations have thus shown that they can dynamically adjust, at speed and quite effectively, when the mobilization is taking place around a common rationale/story that is compelling and strong enough. While the window for collective mobilization is limited, organizations who rally around a common, collective urgency can change incredibly quickly.
Lesson 3: Collective engagement and commitment drive better individual resilience
Resilience is a very personal and individual trait. But today’s crisis also shows how people are using collective engagement and commitment to sustain their own resilience and fortitude. Think of the workers in healthcare, food/delivery services, education, public services, and many other sectors who find the strength to continue forward. For some, the motivation may be money-related, but it also comes from the value that they deliver to the community and to their families, and because of the commitments they’ve made. They are encouraged and supported by others to continue to push through and deliver essential services to the rest of us. Every day, we see new tributes to the “frontline workers,” and to those that have had to adjust to cancelled graduations, weddings, sports competitions, and so many more events. As a community, our recognition of the hardship and sacrifices becomes fuel for resilience.
The key takeaway here is that while change is inherently an individual process, the collective engagement of peers, managers, colleagues, and leaders can dramatically raise one’s own ability to change and one’s capacity for resilience.
Lesson 4: Sustaining resilience is both about necessity and compelling goals
Early on in a crisis, compliance can take center stage—we adjust to what authorities tell us to do, we modify our own behaviors because we’re either told, or strongly encouraged in the face of limited information. But sustained change and resilience ultimately need to be connected to a compelling, ambitious goal that can keep us going—flatten the curve, reduce deaths, find a vaccine, etc.
Ultimately, our resilience comes from our ability to translate a macro goal into a personal, meaningful one—protect our close ones, help our community, support others. If that connection between the bigger goal and the more personal one doesn’t exist, resilience falters.
For organizations, the lesson is that compliance is not fuel for real change and is often a dangerous illusion that leaders can misinterpret for engagement. Successfully mobilizing workforces for change requires a connection between the ambitious, collective objective and the personal, meaningful one. Resilience is about continuously answering the question “Why or for what/whom am I doing this?”
As I write this, our way out of the crisis remains unclear—how long will it take, how many more people will be affected, what radically different behaviors may become the new normal? But what is becoming more and more evident is that our collective and individual resilience, and how we engage it, will dramatically impact our ultimate success and what we learn from this crisis. As a change management practitioner, I remain unabashedly optimistic. By raising self-awareness and engaging our own resilience, we’re much more likely to succeed in creating and driving the sustainable change that we need.