Four things leaders can learn from Covid-19 that can make them better leaders

Four things leaders can learn from Covid-19 that can make them better leaders

What can leaders learn about change and organizational transformation from the covid-19 situation, that we can apply to future change projects? Learnings we can use to improve our change capacity and efficiency, so we can succeed with upcoming projects and transformations.
20.April 2020 Lars Hæhre, Røst Psykologer AS
In the past few weeks, we have experienced organizational transformations in light speed. Changes that would normally take months, perhaps years, have been accomplished within days. We have adopted new ways of working, communicating, leading teams and organizations, and solving organizational challenges. While in the midst of this pandemic, the human mind also drifts towards thinking of prevention and improvement, for future challenges. 
What follows are the key takeaways leaders can learn from covid-19:

1. Changes come in different types. 
Because of some trivial event at a marketplace in Wuhan, people are now in lockdown all over the world and many organizations are fighting against bankruptcy. Hospitals are delaying nonessential operations and oil storages are filling up. There is no way we could have planned for this. Rather, we must respond to the changes and sudden shift in context that has been brought upon us. And such is the nature of changes - some of them are sudden and unpredictable. We will never know what the future will bring and what changes we can expect next. Even less so in a complex and interconnected world where the trivial events in countries far away can affect us in profound ways

When conditions allow for it, there are of course some changes we can initiate and dictate in a controlled way. These are the easier ones to manage and do not require the same skill set as sudden and unpredictable changes. Planned and controlled changes can also be demanding and bothersome, however we often experience a feeling of being more in control over them.

Leaders must therefore understand that changes come in different versions - planned and unplanned. To survive future demands leaders should focus on building change capacity and change readiness in their organizations. Focusing on establishing psychological safety on a team and individual level. Because with safety comes mental flexibility, less risk aversion, more willingness to look at issues from different perspectives, better cooperation climate and other beneficial conditions for changes. This will be essential organizational and leader skills in order to handle the abrupt shifts in the modern world. Only this way will they be ready when the next strike comes.


2. Changes happen when people understand the need for it. According to change management guru John Kotter the initial step of all changes should be to “Create a sense of urgency”. And the covid-19 pandemic has definitely brought us a reason to change our ways of working. In fact, many of us have seen change as the only way to continue being able to deliver value to our companies and societies. Thus, people are more willing to experiment and step into the unknown when they experience and understand why the changes are necessary. This is basic human psychology.

When changes demand that we expose ourselves to the unknown, feelings of uncertainty will occur. Human beings are more willing to challenge their own uncertainty when they feel it is for a good reason. The absence of such a reason generates the organizational phenomenon of change resistance. So, for leaders to succeed in future change projects they need to communicate and ensure that employees understand why changes are necessary.


3. Leaders must be role models for the change and lead by example.
When we experience the opposite - that leaders don’t follow their own commands - it infuriates us. We saw several examples of this at the onset of the restrictions in Norway. First of all, the assistant Chief Medical Officer Geir Stene-Larsen was given an exception to the quarantine rule of 14 days for international travels, only later to find out he was actually infected by Corona. Even worse was the reaction when our Minister of Justice Monica Mæland recorded a video from her office talking about how breaking the quarantine rules could result in prosecutions - while herself being under quarantine restrictions! The irony of her talking about this and not following her own rules - it degrades the leader’s integrity and diminishes our willingness to ‘do our part’ of the changes. Leaders must be the champions of their own changes and rules. Both through what they say, but also through what they do.


4. One can expect a dip in productivity during changes.

When we learn new skills or start performing tasks we’ve never done before - it takes time getting used to. This drop in productivity is something one must expect in changes, and one should consider it an investment. With new ways of communicating and the usage of unknown technical tools because of the virus, we have seen a decline in productivity. Most likely it will increase over time, and we adapt to the changed circumstances. Leaders must be aware of this dip and consider how they can make it as short-lived and shallow as possible, without having unrealistic expectations.


By analysing and reflecting upon what we can learn from the covid-19 pandemic, leaders can utilize these learnings in the future. Many wise words have been written about how leaders can handle the current crisis. However, we should also consider what we can learn from this. Now that the dust has settled from the initial impact, it is about time that we start looking ahead and getting the most out of these extraordinary times.

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