Many people underestimate the challenges associated with behavior change after the COVID-19 pandemic. This change is unprecedented because the pandemic poses specific challenges.
1. Post-pandemic change activates the conflict detector in the brain: Change activates the conflict detector in the brain – causing cognitive dissonance. Following the pandemic, this activation will already be high. Any kind of change will be a challenge because the brain is uneasy. For example, you might find it is harder to get employees to adjust to being part of a multifunctional team.
The usual reframing – i.e., “Look at this as an opportunity” – does not work. When anxiety is reflexive, as it is in a pandemic, reframing increases amygdala activation rather than decreases as it does when anxiety is less instinctual. Remember this if your people feel disinclined to look on the bright side.
Try starting meetings with mindfulness or virtual reality. Both of these techniques get to the root of anxiety quickly, enabling change to happen more easily. You should also talk to your team about purpose. This activates the brain’s reward system and quells anxiety by increasing your sense of wellbeing.
Learning leaders should attend mindfulness trainings, as well as reflection sessions on meaning and purpose.
2. COVID-19 may make it impossible to dream up a new future: During a lockdown, cabin fever may cause fear of the passage of time – called chronophobia. If also traumatized by the death of someone close to you or extreme fear of becoming ill, the future may seem impossible to imagine. When you have a “sense of foreshortened future,” there is nothing to change for. This, combined with stress turning on your habit pathways, keeps you stuck in the moment.
To combat this frozen attitude, change will require constant guidance into a defined future. Start by assessing what is blocking possibilities, and then design an intervention targeting the cause – e.g., feeling lost or burnt out. Change is taxing on the team, so it is important to know what future you are committed to.
People who expect to revert to normal will also be resistant to change. Their brains may not register any payoffs for change. Research demonstrates that, under such circumstances, the left frontal cortex has to activate much more for change to occur. This will only happen if the brain buys into the advantages of change. You may need to spell this out for people – repeatedly.
Learning leaders should determine the possible thinking of any given individual (using a scale like the possibility index). There should also be resources for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as mental health screenings to foster a future-oriented mindset.
3. Resilience may hold you back: Everyone needs to be resilient. But if resilience is your goal, change may be impossible. In the same way a float will not allow you to surf waves, simply protecting yourself may cause you to lack flexibility.
Sometimes you need to dance in disorder. This is a form of change that requires letting go of traditional forms of control called antifragility.
Instead of relying on an external means of control, you turn inward to facilitate change. Imagination, simulation and imitation guide you. Test your imagination, and try out a few scenarios. However, it’s not just about going through the motions. You must be deeply in your imagination, and if scenario planning, you must be able to vividly walk through different situations.
Learning leaders should help leaders develop imagination biologically, as well as have an antifragile plan for reintegration and reinvention.
During and after the pandemic, don’t try to encourage change by simply spelling out what needs to be done. Use mindfulness, conversations about meaning and purpose, possibility thinking, and imagination to guide yourself and your team to change.