The science of change management explains why COVID is freaking us out

Besides the physical health threats of COVID-19 the pandemic is wreaking emotional damage on many as uncertainty and confusion begets fear that morphs into anger and a demand for immediate solutions, answers and actions that science cannot provide. The increasing sense of crisis may appear chaotic with no light in our dark tunnels of isolation. But in fact the science of change management explains that things are quite normal.

In fact, events of the time are following very established patterns explained by change management. And to understand those patterns may bring at least a flickering light of hope and direction to us.

The principles of scientific change management are quite simple. Change affecting our lives can often bring a sense of surprise; fear if the facts are not clear; apprehension if the facts are clear but they hurt us; confusion if our role is ambivalent; and anger and reaction if we are faced with continued uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness.

Our reaction to all manner of threats are chiefly emotional as our brain’s amygdala triggers a flight, fight, or freeze reaction. We see a new threat in the context and experience of what happened before, designing reactions based on what worked before. The only positive purpose of change to many is to establish security and stability and a sense of certainly.

Today the pandemic is neatly charted on any of the many models of change management. William Bridges argues that change is best described as a journey from emotionally letting go of what we once had, entering a neutral stage of questioning and ambivalence, and finally moving forward with a new beginning.

As Bridges’ model shows, there is a percentage of people who can’t let go of things as they were. They cling to an evaporating economic certainty, to past cheerful bonds of socialization, and to clocks set to a predictable future. Their emotions of fear and anger run strong. Those emotions are evidenced in “anti-masker” protests, conspiracy theories, and “facts” that fill the uncertainty of science and bring an illusion of knowledge and safety.

There are some who argue that all that is needed is “better” communication with those who are trapped in what Bridges describes as “fear, loss, and hard to let go.” But that is a simplistic solution. Those stuck in the first stage of transition are squeezed by attitudes and behaviours long in the making and rooted in institutional and societal mistrust. It is the second and far larger group, those in Bridges’ “Neutral Zone” of “searching, confusion, and highs/lows” that we need to address.

It can be argued that society is stuck in this “Neutral Zone,” unable to enter Bridges’ “The new Beginning Stage” encompassing a “new identity, new energy, new purpose, and optimism” because of an erosion of trust. The science of change management advocates that moving from a sense of urgency and purpose to actually instituting change requires as John Kotter says, “developing an inspiring vision” through a “guiding coalition” that is capable of “conveying the new vision.” But to accomplish that requires a great deal of trust.

The research on trust agrees that the defining characteristic of trust in others and in institutions and organizations requires the presence of competence, fairness, dependability, honesty, openness, experience, and consistency. Those characteristics must be embedded in communication that is clear, useful, and timely.

Today as much of society spins its wheels in the murky waters of the pandemic, seeking some hope of traction to drive us to a new level, trust seems to be a diminishing resource. The science of change management has an explanation for that. It is simply that we are basing our trust on old models, hoping that yesterday’s solutions and behavior to urgent problems will return us to the glory days of yesteryear. That things will “change back” to where we were. It simply won’t happen.

We are confusing “change” with “transition.” As Bridges said, ““It’s not the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational…Transition, on the other hand, is psychological…Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned”