Leading people through forced change


When employees face disruptive change, they are often spurred on because there is a well-founded “why”—a justification for a necessary change that will make the business more successful. Organizational leaders create a story for this journey because there is a compelling reason to do so. But this normal path to change has been significantly overturned with the current coronavirus pandemic. The reasons for change have been thrust upon all of us, affecting most of our daily routines, without even the opportunity to create buy-in and engagement. Regardless, engaged employees are productive employees, and there are a few key things that we can do to support them and make them productive in this new way of working. Doing so will build resilience and make the organization stronger.

Differentiating our normal state from our current state

Before we address what you can do to support your employees, it’s important to understand how they are experiencing this forced change. The change curve below depicts the process people go through before they achieve acceptance in the face of change. The change curve typically involves an emotional downturn as you move from denial and anger to bargaining and depression.

Source: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969). Death and Dying; Susan Hendrich, sashaphilosophy.com

In today’s forced change situation, however, the “normal” change curve has flattened significantly and several expected emotional peaks have been removed. Employees have had to skip over denial, anger and bargaining, moving straight to depression and onto acceptance—and very quickly. Generally, the extent of the dip—and the speed with which recovery takes place—is a function of the timeliness and effectiveness of training plans. In the case of coronavirus, we went to 100% learn-by-doing in this new way of working with no time for a learning dip. Employees have no choice but to rapidly adopt the attitude of: “Coronavirus is here and there is nothing that I can do about it. Now, I must figure out how to stay productive and connected while working from home and juggling many roles.”

Adjusting to this new phase of forced change

So, how can we help employees maintain their acceptance, effectiveness and problem-solving skills, while reinforcing continued momentum during this crisis? For leaders, there are three key ways in which you can help your employees adapt to this forced change:

1. Support their basic needs

With this pandemic, there is much anxiety about basic human well-being. Within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we are currently at the bottom of the pyramid—physiological and safety needs.

Source: Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and Personality

As Maslow states, a lower-level need has power to motivate behavior until it is sufficiently satisfied, then the next higher category of need tends to take over. This means that for your employees to be motivated to do their daily jobs, they first need a sense of physical security and then safety. Once those two basic needs are met, then they can move up the hierarchy to get closer to esteem and self-actualization, directly impacting their productivity and happiness at work.

So, how can you increase their physiological and safety needs? You can satisfy these needs by reducing their fear of the unknown and begin to move up the hierarchy with the following:

  • Communicate what you know and do it often
  • Address questions through (virtual) town halls, FAQs, and webinars
  • Check in frequently individually and continue to be a sounding board for complaints and questions – How are you doing? Is there anything that I can do to help?
  • Confirm that employees have the necessary resources to succeed – equipment, connection, coaching and guidance

Leaders should acknowledge this major change to their day to day lives and communicate a plan for the business to persevere through the pandemic. Answer and relay what you know in terms of the company’s plans to succeed in the future. Focus and acknowledge the temporary disruption, and shift the conversation to remaining productive until you can reset the new vision and roadmap for your organization after the pandemic.

2. Demonstrate empathy and make connections

This virus affects all of us. Nobody is spared. This collective fear can be a powerful connection for all. Employees will appreciate your show of concern for their well-being and your own. Share your anxieties and listen to theirs. Consider offering office hours to listen and share. During these office hours, leaders may discover some anxieties that can be addressed so that employees can get past their physiological and safety needs as mentioned above. Also, remember to provide your employees with a sense of purpose. Employees want to feel that their work has meaning and value, and will choose to invest themselves in activities they consider worthwhile.

3. Provide visibility into early successes and lessons learned

With so many people adapting to the change all at once, managers and leaders should encourage and reassure people by sharing success stories. Recognize the positive behaviors and outcomes from those behaviors. Bring these success stories to light with spotlights during conference calls and virtual meetings. Also, take the opportunity to share what the management team has learned.

Implementing new ways of dealing with work-from-home realities

At Celerity, we have been encouraging virtual meetings and sharing tips and tricks to make this transition better. We have marched forward with key decisions and regularly planned meetings in a new format, rather than postponing and rescheduling. In doing so, we are working hard to create a “business in a new format” mindset to empower employees to make progress with their work.

We have also launched social events to provide additional connections and joy to our daily routines. Examples include a pasta making webinar led by our CEO, a lunchtime music webinar facilitated by one of our employees, and virtual fitness classes in place of our normal in-person classes. By moving forward and pivoting to the new format, employees have gained confidence in themselves and Celerity. They see the impact that they have had with their adaptability to this change. This confidence and resilience can also translate into hope for the future successes of our company.

Building agility for future challenges

We are in a different type of change journey with this coronavirus pandemic, but it is a change journey nonetheless. If organizations can manage through the fears and anxieties from their leaders and employees, they can build the resilience to succeed in the next chapter. Organizations may even find welcomed additions or improvements to their culture and workforce productivity as they adopt the forced change.

Thank you for moving forward with the workshop. It was such a good session!!!! I am so energized!

—Saliha G., Celerity employee

“I’m loving the fitness classes. They get me excited for Mondays and help me stay motivated.”

—Stephanie M., Celerity employee