Lessons in Change from a Global Pandemic

Perhaps the most obvious impact of the pandemic on our expectations of change was that for many observers—both academics and leaders—the speed with which change happened was shocking. We’re not talking here about the imposed lockdowns so much, but about the responses that came after: the ways in which organizations and individuals had to rapidly transform what they did and how they they went about it.

Not all organizations seem to have learned all the lessons of the pandemic equally. We have noticed that some firms seem to have retained their greater expectations of change while having seemingly forgotten what COVID taught us about the challenges involved.

There has been a huge amount of fascinating research in the pandemic and post-pandemic periods, that seems to combine three key findings that we believe reinforce the lessons from COVID, and provide ideas for how to manage behavioural change in the “new normal” which firms now face:

  • Finding #1: Motivation is even more situational than we previously thought
  • Finding #2: Using gamification is more complicated than previously thought
  • Finding #3: There is more talk than ever before about change maintenance

The central theme running through all this research has been a reinforcement of our core argument: that individuals’ internal and external contexts need to be supportive of a change in behaviour for that change to succeed and be sustained.

Since we wrote the first edition of our book, events and research have mainly taught us that however complex we thought this context was, it is even more so. Because year after year, new research has been published showing some new ways in which people differ, and in which techniques that help some people, can hinder change in others.

The immediate impact of these events and research was to reinforce in our minds how managers need to adjust their approach with every single person: how the optimal context depends upon the situation, the person involved, and the change being attempted. Yes, this can feel complex and tiring, but the evidence just keeps stacking up. If you want behavioural change to work, then the approach you take to supporting it needs to vary between individuals. And there is just no short-cut, no getting around this.

Beyond this though, the new events and research also led us to look more broadly. For the element of context that we increasingly found ourselves focusing on was the supporting environment. And not just the supporting environment created by the techniques we use to support change. But the supporting context beyond this. The context of the broader relationship between an employee and their boss, and the context of the wider business culture. The evidence here just kept stacking up.

The level of fairness perceived in the broader business culture can change the effectiveness of external motivators and gamification techniques. Also, the degree to which people generally enjoy their jobs and like their employer can affect how likely change techniques are to succeed. This is because content employees tend to have higher levels of motivation and psychological capital, whereas unhappy employees tend to have lower levels of these and so invest less effort on trying to change.

Similarly, the level of cynicism or trust in an organization’s culture can affect more or less every technique we have studied. If employees do not trust the business—or if they do not trust their manager—then any attempt you make to help them change is less likely to succeed. In fact, any attempt to do anything with them is less likely to succeed.

When we originally wrote the first edition of our book, we focused on the aspects of employees’ context that most directly affect whether attempts to change and develop succeed, and that a manager could quickly and easily do something about. What we found is that there are four aspect that are indeed critical for creating a supportive context for change, that we call MAPS:

  • Motivation —do they want to change?
  • Ability—do they know what to do and do they have the skills required to change?
  • Psychological capital—do they have the inner resources, such as self-belief, willpower, and resilience, they need to sustain change?
  • Supporting environment—do key elements in their working environment, such as incentives, situational cues, and social norms support them in their efforts to change?

As time has passed, we have increasingly been drawn to the relationships between employees and their organizations, and between employees and the managers they work for. Because these relationships create the wider context within which everything happens. And if the wider context isn’t right, if it isn’t positive, then everything you do to support change will be harder, and, ultimately, less likely to work.

So, it is this broader relationship and its effect on employees, more than anything else, that has been the focus of our attention in the years since we first published our book. And our research into this relationship, and our work with businesses across the world, has left us firm in the belief that it holds the key to solving almost all the challenges involved in changing employee behaviour, whether that be to develop skills, improve performance, or change the whole culture of a team or business.

Shlomo Ben-Hur is an Organizational Psychologist and a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. He is co-author of Changing Employee Behavior (2nd Ed.) with Nik Kinley.

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