Photo of glasses looking at fields, representing psychology of change

The Psychology of Change: 3 Ideas for Post Pandemic People Preparation

Dr Arlene Egan 9th September 2021

Following the past 18 months, I am making a very conscious effort to change some of my less useful and unhealthy habits into something much more beneficial for me. I understand how small but consistent effort and change can lead to greater improvements in my work-life balance, which holds value and importance for me. Of course, understanding this logic is only one part of the change puzzle. Changing my mindset and behaviour is more complex. This morning, following a brisk 30-minute walk in the nearby woods with my very energetic spaniel, I sat down with my coffee and logged into Zoom to participate in an event on the psychology of change, run by my colleague, Dr Katarina Zajacova.

Sitting at my kitchen table, communicating via an online platform, spending time sharing ideas with people from all over the world, with my dog asleep at my feet, certainly is a change from the way I was working pre pandemic. I would consider these positive changes to my work practice. However, others may not agree that this way of working is positive or beneficial in how they conduct their role. This is where Katarina began her insights, as she explained that context matters. Regardless of our job role or title, people have the capacity to respond to change across the spectrum, from dread and fear to excitement and elation. It all depends on how they are thinking, feeling, and acting in response to the change stimulus.

Wordcloud of participant’s views from Roffey Park’s Psychology of Change Event

We understand through research and experience that there are key reasons why people react negatively to change. These include, a sense of fear or loss, reduction of control, a feeling of threat or imposition, a change in expertise or status, lack of confidence and a lack of understanding of how the change will affect them. While those of us with people or change management responsibilities may recognise this list, Katarina pointed out that we often get swept up into the change fog while neglecting to focus on what will remain unchanged. Often, despite change some things remain. Perhaps it is function, or process or teams. Psychologically, although we can protect ourselves and mitigate discomfort by focusing on loss, through practice, effort, and effective communication we can also help to open people up to the idea that all change has both opportunity and risk and through change somethings will remain.

If being more mindful of the psychological impact of change on people post pandemic is of interest to you, these three ideas may help:

Communication is key

The very nature of change quite often leaves us in predicament that we may not have all the answers in relation to key aspects of change. Yet, as change agents or leaders in an organisation it is important to understand two fundamental psychological concepts. First, in times of change people look up. How leaders ‘walk the walk’ comes under intense scrutiny. How their actions match their words sends clear messages to all in the organisation about key aspects of the change. Second, gaps need to be closed. These could be gaps in understanding, which if not addressed can be closed with (mis)assumption and inaccurate storytelling.

Regardless of whether change is sudden, gradual, or planned having a comprehensive and cohesive communication plan will help ease the transition. It can also keep people informed of new information, mistakes or changes in direction. Honesty in communication goes a long way. Trust in the change process can erode quickly if leaders or change agents are found to be insincere. In creating space for those affected by change to ask questions, even the tough questions or those you might not have an answer to right now, helps create momentum, build relationships and even identify change advocates that can offer their support.

Engage staff across the organisation

Change, like leadership is not the preserve of the senior leadership team. Staff (especially those in an effective team) often have greater levels of resilience than expected and great ideas on how to help manage or embed change. As I mentioned in the beginning, change is experiential. What might illicit fear, dread, or fatigue in one can excite, motivate, or energise someone else. Champions of change can exist at all levels of our organisations, how are we including them? How are we responding to those we perceive as strongly resistant? Both can be assets in times of change.

Having change champions or advocates from across the organisation can ultimately provide leaders, managers and those with a HR or transformation agenda access to a wider range of people. Knowing who is best placed to help demystify or clarify ideas around change is important, as it may not be someone in a leadership position. As trust and engagement play important roles in enabling change, it is important to think about the value of having champions communicating and engaging with others across the organisation and providing feedback on any ideas that they pick up along the way. Similarly, there is learning to be gained from including people resistant to the change. While many of us shy away from such situations and hope that the tide of change will bring those resistant along with it, eventually, it is the case that many fears, concerns and alternatives can be understood better and responded to by engaging with those less in favour of change.  

Use change to learn and educate

Change is a constant. Change is complex. Change has risk and reward. Change is unpredictable. It is easy for us to be caught up in the navigation of the newness that change brings. Again, this speaks to our psychology. We need to pay closer attention to skills, behaviours and emotions as we are developing. Yet, behaviours will deepen and sustain if we celebrate the wins. For many, the last 18 months has felt like constant change. Like being in long tunnel with little light. Yet, as we head into post pandemic work practice, I hear people comment on a fear that things will go back to the way they used to be. In this instance then, hasn’t change brought some success? Doesn’t this mean there has been some improvement on how things were done before? Taking time to recognise success as an organisation but also for teams playing their roles in sustaining the organisation will reap benefits. First, for those advocates, it gives encouragement. Second, for those resistant, it shows momentum. Third, for leaders and change agents it helps check strategic direction.

When the celebration is over, we typically ask “what’s next?” Having milestones identified, marked and publicised, psychologically this helps people to understand where they are in the change process and how their organisation is responding. By breaking parts of a change process into chunks, people are better able to cope psychologically and it becomes easier to identify where extra support or education may be required to equip people for the next phase of change.

These are just 3 ideas that came to my mind having spent time thinking and talking about change. As many organisations plan for work practice post pandemic, more change will be inevitable. Keeping people informed, allowing them space to talk, ask questions, and be listened to is one of the basic foundations, which if done correctly can help create momentum in times of change. One final thought, the question “are we there yet?” may be familiar to some. I best associate this with long journeys, that seem endless and perhaps, at times, even pointless. When we think about the psychology of change, this is one of those questions that people ask too. Be sure to close change off for people, or at least phases of change. This can help the journey feel less like a boring, tiresome trek and more like a purposeful adventure.