Negative hashtags about how 2020 has played out so far have been flooding social media in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re part of a new mantra born out of a shared grieving for the normalcy of our pre-coronavirus lives. If you’re a Nashvillian like me, 2020 not only ushered in COVID-19 but also brought with it deadly tornadoes, power outages and wild weather patterns that saw many of us hunkering down in our safe spaces in the wee small hours, glued to doppler radar patterns on our smartphones, and praying that the storm will pass—in every way.
2020 is also the year that much of the world was placed on lockdown, and, for Gresham Smith, it is the year our entire company transitioned to working from home for our safety and well-being. Although our move to a 100% remote workforce has been a successful transition thanks to the advance planning of our IT group and our “Move Toward Mobility” investment over recent years, I find myself, like so many others, missing the office environment and spending real time with my colleagues.
Day 39 of working from home and staying “safer at home” was the day that I hit a wall—metaphorically speaking. It was the day that I said to myself: “This isn’t fun anymore. I want to go back to where I was before COVID-19.” And, I know I’m one of the lucky ones to be able to have that conversation with myself during a global pandemic underscored by the loss of life and livelihoods. Nonetheless, many of us are asking ourselves: “When will we go back to ‘normal?’”
As long as the unknowns are greater than the knowns, there is no answer to that question. Yet, there appears to be a collective “tug of war” taking place. Some believe that we will never return to life as we knew it, while others insist that we will. No matter what side of the debate you’re on, I personally feel that how well we cope during the coronavirus crisis has everything to do with our willingness to accept change and the ups and downs that it surely brings.
In this post, I look at how adapting to change—even of an exponential nature—can actually serve as a vital catalyst for growth.
“Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The old Scout motto has it right. Whether you believe there is going to be radical change or perhaps no change at all in the long term due to COVID-19, I personally feel you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by being prepared for change. If you focus on how bad 2020 has been, and you’re sitting it out on the sidelines waiting for life to get better, or to go back to what it once was, then you’re probably going to be unhappy for a while.
I’m here to challenge you that a better approach is to resign yourself to the fact that change is right in front of us. Once you’ve accepted that, you free yourself up to figure out how to best position yourself to deal with change.
While conducting research for a Strategic Agility training course for Gresham Smith leadership, I was directed to a book by Cynthia A. Montgomery, the Timken Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, called The Strategist. One of the book’s many takeaways is that a good leader is always thinking about change in the future, and from a strategic perspective is constantly in a process of self-reinvention.
Of course, this applies to all of us. And I’d like to suggest that this time of rapid-fire change represents the ideal opportunity to reinvent ourselves, which involves a good measure of self-awareness in order to effectively navigate the human side of change.
A Time to Gain, A Time to Lose
In his classic book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, the late William Bridges identifies three stages of transition that an individual experiences during major change: Ending What Currently Is, The Neutral Zone and The New Beginning. According to Bridges, the first phase of transition begins with an ending in which we identify what to let go and what to keep. In other words, before anything new can begin, something else has to end.
The Neutral Zone is the space between Ending What Currently Is and The New Beginning where the old is gone but the new isn’t yet fully realized. We are arguably in that zone right now. Many of us have said goodbye to working in an office environment, at least for the moment, and we’ve spent the past few months adjusting to working from home, social distancing and being placed on lockdown.
A betwixt and between phase, The Neutral Zone is a place where anxiety rises and motivation falls. And it’s important to note that it’s perfectly normal to feel confused, disoriented, frustrated and even skeptical as we start to emerge from the initial shock of the major change we’ve just encountered. People also tend to be divided in The Neutral Zone. Some of us are ready to move forward and see what tomorrow brings. Others just want to go back to the way it used to be.
Bridges suggests that once we transition from The Ending Phase into The Neutral Zone, we should start putting our energies into thinking about what’s next, playing out different scenarios of what our future might look like and being creative, even entrepreneurial, when thinking through approaches to each of these scenarios.
We need to be asking ourselves a lot of “What if” questions. What if we stay like this for a long period of time? What if there’s a new way of operating for our clients or for our teams? What if I could wipe the slate clean and start from scratch?
Going through this process can be an extremely cathartic exercise in which you’re crafting a vision of what tomorrow might look like, which is far more positive and uplifting than feeling stuck or being a prisoner of the past. When you begin to embrace change rather than being a victim of it, you’ll start to feel a sense of control and empowerment.
Maintaining Your Purpose & Values
Even though you’re asking yourself the “What if” questions and putting your energies into something productive to avoid becoming “static,” you don’t have to give up your main purpose or your values. In fact, those are two core tenets that shouldn’t change. You are simply changing up how you fulfill your same purpose to adjust to the “new normal.” I like to think of it like this: Somebody just changed the rules of the game, but the purpose of the game remains the same—put the ball in the goal!
When we look at things from that perspective, it allows us to summon the energy to think about the “What ifs” and to play the scenarios game because we’re still committed and passionate about our purpose.
And it takes a lot of energy to get yourself there. So, give yourself a little breathing room along the way and don’t forget to take care of you! Surround yourself with those who actually relish change and a change-oriented environment, and maybe even lean on trusted colleagues and friends as sounding boards to try out new thoughts and advance their formation.
At the end of the day, take heart if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck in The Neutral Zone. It can actually serve as a vital steppingstone toward a new beginning that is marked by the release of energy in a new direction that helps us to feel both reoriented and renewed.