What We Should Have Done

A COVID Do-Over: How leaders transmit the importance of change matters

What if we had a second chance to design our response to COVID-19? Jonathan Berry, European Practice Director at change management consultancy Expressworks, considers the proposition as preparation for the next wave of change.

We’ll be learning from the world’s response to the pandemic for decades to come, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the significance of collective behaviour and the difficulty of trying to shape it on the fly.

We’ll be learning from the world’s response to the pandemic for decades to come, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the significance of collective behaviour and the difficulty of trying to shape it on the fly.

Perspective is something, isn’t it? Only three quarters of the way into 2020, the nostalgia I feel for the simpler times we enjoyed in 2019 is palpable. We’ll be learning from the world’s response to the pandemic for decades to come, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the significance of collective behaviour and the difficulty of trying to shape it on the fly.

If we could go back and do it all again, world leaders would benefit from following a change management approach to changing hearts and minds. As all of us now know, the way you frame change and guide people through it has everything to do with its outcome.

Abiding by these three key tenets of change management might have eased Government’s effort to curb the spread of the virus.

  1. Choose your WIIFM wisely
  2. Manage the Journey, not the Moment
  3. Guidance and Trust beats Command and Control

1: Choose your WIIFM wisely

As change managers, one of the first questions we ask is, “If this change were being done to us, why would we want to comply?” We call this the “WIIFM” – What’s In It For Me.

When they chose to go into lockdown, most governments leapt to the conclusion that the obvious WIIFM was personal safety. Their message was, “Stay home, wear masks, and wash your hands to protect yourselves.” Sadly, this stopped working after the initial alarm subsided. At some point, people reflected that they didn’t feel in danger and that – after all – it was up to them if they chose to risk their own lives. The inevitable result was a drop-in compliance.

The countries that did better were those who used the WIIFM of other people’s safety. This may seem counterintuitive: When we’re alarmed, even the most public-spirited among us look after ourselves and our families first. However, in practice, focusing on other people’s safety worked both by appealing not just to community spirit (connecting to something larger than the individual) but also to the pride we take in protecting those around us. In the early weeks of lockdown in the UK, the government explicitly used the message, “Protect the National Health Service,” and compliance was consequently high – although this would sow the seeds of trouble later.

“If this change were being done to us, why would we want to comply?” We call this the “WIIFM” – What’s In It For Me.

2: Manage the Journey, not the Moment

Those who effectively manage change understand that there will be surprises on the path to the desired outcome. People don’t expect leaders to have all of the answers, but they do expect them to be thinking about what is next. For example, as our understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve, messaging should reflect this fluidity to prevent loss of credibility. UK residents were happy to “Protect the National Health Service,” but when they saw that new emergency hospitals built for COVID-19 were empty, they began to doubt the need for them. Conversely, leaders who chose to play down the threat – or even advocate religious protections – found themselves looking foolish as the disease swept through their populations.

Most world leaders entered the crisis with considerable goodwill and credibility but struggled to maintain it because they had no way to back away from the verifiably incorrect statements they made in the early days of the crisis. Avoiding this error requires making sure your messaging includes a suitable ladder to climb down later on. “Based on what we now understand about the disease, there is no need to wear a facemask,” could have been easily switched – when the time was right – to, “Our newest research indicates that, contrary to what was thought earlier, we all do need to wear facemasks.” People are quite willing to accept change as a result of new understanding – provided you lay the groundwork first.

Side note – when guiding people through the uncertainty of change, it’s important to avoid the trap of looking as if you are not in charge. The UK government’s insistence that they were “following the science” rather than “making decisions informed by the science” cost them considerable credibility. It’s a small difference, but in these times your words will be meticulously scrutinised.

People don’t expect leaders to have all of the answers, but they do expect them to be thinking about what is next.

3: Guidance and Trust beats Command and Control

At times, change does require specific directives, but particularly strict guidelines can fuel resistance, as we discussed in our first tenet, What’s In It For Me. Though most people understood some of the early mandates made in the name of slowing the spread of the virus, life is complicated and even the simplest rules have exceptions. If I have to wear a mask in a shop but not a restaurant, what do I do in a fast food outlet? If cinemas can open, why can’t theatres?

Every exception weakened the strength of well-meaning directives, and every “what-if” muddled the rules and made them harder to follow. Rules can infantilise and cause resentment you can’t afford. But ask people to use their own judgement within clear guidelines, and they feel empowered.

At times, change does require specific directives, but particularly strict guidelines can fuel resistance.

We can’t change the past, of course, but we can keep in mind the significance of these key tenets as we navigate the challenges to come. As COVID-19 has reminded us, change is not a linear process with a pre-determined timeline – it requires flexibility and constant recalibration. It’s never too late to reframe the importance of an initiative, reset expectations as to its duration, and re-evaluate your approach to its implementation. In fact, it’s essential.