Reactions to COVID-19 have differed markedly from person to person. While some people have quickly discovered a new love for baking fresh bread and Zoom dinner parties, others feel distressed and disorientated by the new world that has been thrust upon them. Meanwhile, a further group continues to sunbathe and hold picnics in public places, seemingly unaware that we’re in the midst of a public health emergency.

When we’re thrown a life-altering curve ball, we’re likely to feel a rollercoaster of emotions that may not necessarily make sense to us. But if we take a step back, it’s possible that we can recognise ourselves somewhere on the ‘change curve’ (adapted from the original Elizabeth Kubler-Ross grief model). Below are some insights to help you think about how you might best lead your team during this period of change.

There are four key points to note about the change curve.

  1. We all move through stages at different paces – some may propel straight through to ‘response’ and start experimenting almost immediately. Others may take a while to get to grips with the change and stick in ‘reaction’ or ‘resistance’ for a longer period.
  2. Our peaks and troughs might look different – some have a smooth curve, while others may experience more extreme reactions.
  3. The curve can go both ways – if experimentation fails, without proper support, it is easy to slip backwards into the earlier stages of depression or frustration.
  4. We can experience multiple curves – for example, while we may be progressing speedily through the ‘I can’t go to the gym’ curve, we may be taking longer to move through the ‘I have to home-school my children’ curve.

As a leader in times of change, it is important to recognise which stage your team members are at and to respond appropriately. Be mindful, however, that it is highly unlikely that everyone in your team will be at the same stage at the same time.

Supporting through change

Applying our Gate One change curve, below we provide examples of reactions and the activities leaders may want to engage in in order to support teams through change.

Shock to the system (reaction)

Your team member is in shock or denial. They exhibit a fight, flight or freeze response so may be on edge or excited, or conversely, frozen, numb or carrying on as normal (in denial). In a global pandemic world, these are the people who are still trying to go to have picnics in public spaces. As a leader, it is helpful to recognise that these individuals may be experiencing cognitive dissonance and are likely to need strong guidance and support to move forwards.

This is the time for a directive approach. Tell and inform with consistent messaging and provide very clear instructions. This is akin to the UK Government’s approach, with messages being simple, clear and repetitive (stay at home, wash your hands). To help these individuals move forward, provide space for regular open dialogue – ask questions and provide honest, constructive feedback.

Coming to terms (resistance and realisation)

As we move through the change curve, you are likely to see the frustration. This manifests itself differently in different people, whether that’s anger, playing the blame game, self-pity or avoidance. You may also see signs of low energy and motivation towards the bottom of the curve, for example, some individuals may have stopped showering or getting dressed in the morning. At work, you may experience this as low productivity, energy or postponing important decisions.

This is the time to be supportive. Continue consistent messaging, dialogue and feedback, and up the ante with your own role modelling of new behaviours. Literally show them you are in it together. Look for ways for them to dip a toe in and experiment with the new world, e.g. organise a coffee catch-up over video, invite them to a technology demonstration, or arrange a session to help them learn how to use an unfamiliar collaboration tool.

Finding your feet (response)

Eventually, people’s curiosity and interest in the new world will increase. Many people are already downloading apps like Houseparty, organising Zoom Friday night drinks and encouraging colleagues to join in virtual team exercise challenges. Others may be asking more questions, seeking out new information and taking advantage of training opportunities.

This is the time for a coaching relationship. Provide time and opportunities to experiment and ask them how they might adapt to the new world. Encourage successes, while being supportive if things don’t go to plan, e.g. if you have a technology hiccup, how might you prepare better for next time? Now is a great time to collaborate and share ideas to give your team a stake in the future and build a greater sense of autonomy. Continue to supply ample room for dialogue and questions to help avoid slipping back into a resistance position.

New normal (reform)

At this stage, team members have an increased sense of confidence and are ready to take on more ownership. As lockdown continues, you’ll probably notice more creative ideas coming through, an upsurge of people swapping tips and ideas, new levels of productivity using online collaboration and design tools, and a greater request for feedback.

Delegating and mentoring is a great approach for individuals at this stage. Celebrate their success, empower them to try new things and provide more constructive challenge to their ideas. As feedback goes both ways, it’s also time to ask them for their thoughts on your management approach and to work together to both strengthen your relationship and help you be a better leader for others in the team. Your new ‘change champion’ may also be able to help you support others through the change curve by sharing their experiences.

Even as a change manager, I have noticed myself – as well as my team and clients – move forwards and backwards on the change curve, as we all adapt to new ways of being. Building self-awareness and awareness of the change journeys of others and adapting as a leader can be impactful in improving interactions and supporting the people around us in a meaningful way. As we move into the normal, it will be interesting to see how many of our new habits – both working and personal – will stick. My hope is that our increased empathy, flexibility and connectivity are here to stay.

CHARLOTTE EASTWOOD | SENIOR CONSULTANT

Charlotte is a senior consultant who leads change and communication across complex transformation programmes in the public sector. She has a special interest in leadership development, culture change and organisational design.