For many years communicators have been talking about shifting organisational cultures, the challenges of doing so successfully, and of trying to shorten the time it takes. Modern thinking estimates it takes 3-5 years depending on the complexity of the change. Whenever we speak to organisations about their plans and give this timeline, their faces fall, they look at us like we don’t know what we’re talking about, and they let us know that their organisation is different. Their employees understand the need for change and will embrace it faster. Newsflash: they don’t and they won’t. Shifting cultures simply takes time (and the careful pulling of a lot of different levers).

Then Covid-19 arrived and in response the world, the entire world, had to shift its culture in a few short months. Of course there’s still a population of naysayers who refuse to shift their behaviour. If they’re wrong they may pay for it with their lives, but there lies the crux of what makes the difference to whether a culture shift happens quickly or slowly – what the individual has to lose.

The shifts associated with Covid-19 had life or death as their incentive. There were also mandates, which are a sure-fire way to change behaviour. “Do this or you’ll get fined”, “Don’t do that or you’ll go to prison”. It had herd support – a large number of believers that made the tipping point of change almost immediate. And finally, there was proof that failure to change had consequences – large numbers of people were contracting the virus and sadly dying from it.

So what can the culture shifts caused by Covid-19 teach us? What can we apply to our less than life-threatening change initiatives?

Mandating change can work, but authoritative leadership has also been proven to decrease both innovation and engagement within organisations. Change expert John Kotter told us to ‘burn the bridge’. That means removing the option to go back. If you want employees to use a new piece of technology, shut off the old version so they don’t have a choice. The trouble with this approach is that they do still have a choice. They can leave the company, resist the change, rally against it, obstruct it in some way – all of which add to the statistic that 70% of change programmes fail to meet their objectives. So what’s left? Proof and herd support.

Proof might be the indisputable numbers that support the need for a change to happen, or the better numbers that we project we’ll achieve after a change has taken place. These numbers are important, but while they will fill heads, they will absolutely not fill hearts.

And finally, herd support. The concept of change champions isn’t new, yet most change communication still comes from the top. Covid-19 showed us it was our communities, people like us, that got us to co-operate. We care about our neighbours, our children, our local heroes that asked us to wear masks, stay home, be considerate.

In summary:

  1. Take ‘life-threatening’ out of your toolkit. We’ve used the messaging that ‘the ‘life of the organisation is at risk’ for a long time. Now that we’ve all experienced what ‘life-threatening’ really means, taking that approach will fail.
  2. Beware the mandate. Yes, it’s likely that instructions for a change will come from above and you won’t be able to simply say “no”. Your power as a communicator is finding the balance between delivering for those leaders and creating messaging that gets audiences to care.
  3. Use proof. Numbers are still important, even with a very personal message. The head and heart fight it out on a daily basis, so give them both.
  4. Build your change programmes from the bottom up. Who can make people care about a change initiative? It’s the friends we work with. The managers we trust. It’s our personal circle and those circles are small. So identify those people, think about how to create a swell, and build your change programmes from the bottom up, not the top down.

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