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What a global pandemic taught us about culture change in organisations

It has been almost a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and today we can see huge changes in how people behave everywhere. From wearing a face covering to no longer hugging loved ones, it has been a dramatic change for everyone.

We have come to understand through constant reinforcement that we can control the spread of the virus and protect ourselves and others by changing what we do.  Activities that were encouraged in society just a few months ago are now deemed as unacceptable, whilst others that were inconceivable last year are expected.  We have changed our behaviours as a result of changing our way of thinking.  The question for businesses now is whether there are lessons to be learned from this rapid, widespread behaviour change that could lead to substantial changes in culture and ultimately performance?

We aim to decompose some of the key stages that might have led to the behaviour changes that we have all experienced.  In doing so, we hope to provide some insights that might provide a fresh impetus for those who want to make a change in their organization. 

We know that people will not change their behaviours without knowing why they need to change.  When the catalyst for change is compelling and the consequence of changing is positive and certain or the consequence of not changing is negative, change becomes much more likely.  In the case of mass behaviour change a tipping point is reached where enough people have adapted their actions to generate a momentum that becomes unstoppable.  We have seen this during the pandemic where the vast majority of people in society have modified their behaviour and have reframed their definition of “normal”, even challenging those who have not yet adopted our new, acceptable patterns of behaviour.

Thinking drives behaviours

In business when we need to improve, we either need to change the way we do things or choose to do different things.  The Results Cone popularized by Senn-Delaney provides a useful model of the sequence to be followed when seeking to modify behaviours to deliver results.

Graphic: Results cone

We illustrate the stages of the Results Cone using an example of a change arising from the pandemic response.


COVID-19 is extremely infectious and is transmitted by airborne particles. People do not always show symptoms.


I might unknowingly have the virus and I don’t want to infect others; I also don’t want to catch the virus from others.


I wear a mask and keep a safe distance wherever possible.


I reduce my chances of spreading the virus, and my chance of contracting it.

The model makes it clear that people will generally not change their behaviour without first having insights. Insights change our view of how the world works.  They challenge our beliefs and are temporarily destabilizing.  They are a key part of unfreezing our current through patterns and make us start to think differently.  This will be a critical success factor for any business wanting to enact a widespread behavioural change.

Insights are in the eye of the beholder.  If businesses want to create the conditions for a new thinking way in their employees, their leaders should communicate with clarity and consistency at high frequency.  In the case of the pandemic response, the approaches taken by Governments across the world have varied in this respect.  It would be relatively easy for the reader to identify those that have done this well and those that have underappreciated the importance of this. 

Yet, providing insights through communication is not enough to develop a new thinking way if there is an absence of trust.  There can be no positive, sustainable change without trust between leaders and employees.  Trust can be developed during communication through transparency, reason and congruence between what we say and what we do.  As leaders we enable transparency and reason when communication is treated as a 2-way street and we provide opportunity for questions and answer those questions fully and honestly.  Mismatches between verbal and non-verbal signals are easy to overlook as leaders but easy to spot by observers.  Many messages have been received incorrectly through poor display of nonverbal communication. I remember speaking to a group of people as a manager once and although my words and tone were both enthusiastic and encouraging, it seems that my body language was sending a completely different message. As a result, I had to spend many hours afterwards reiterating the message to correct the effects of that.

Once we have helped people develop new thoughts, we must support people through their adoption of new behaviours.  As leaders we cast a big shadow, and that shadow, demonstrates to others our reinforcement of what is and what is not important.  Through demonstrating good behaviour we can gain a level of trust and support from those who we are trying to convince to follow us. Remember, however, that as leaders we are often judged on our worst day.  Be warned that the shadow we cast will have far more of a negative influence, when people see us doing something that conflicts with what we are asking them to do, as they will judge us on what they see in that single moment.  So, we need to model the behaviours that we expect of others and be open and transparent if we occasionally err. 

Habits are hard to make and hard to break

Our challenges are not over when our new behaviours lead to new results since our focus moves to sustainment of the gains.  We look to consolidate new behaviours by forming and developing habits and preventing unhelpful repetitive behaviours by extinguishing habits.  A helpful model from James Clear identifies actions that can be taken to either develop new habits or extinguish old ones.  We use some examples from the pandemic response to illustrate how it works.

Graphic: Habit Formation / Extinguishment Model

Looking at the success of the cultural and behavioral changes that have been made to slow down the spread of the pandemic, it’s amazing what has been achieved in 6 months.  During that time, we have totally changed how people think and feel, how they work and even how they interact socially.  Whilst these changes are not desirable in normal times, they have been accepted and embraced for the greater good.  Of course, not everyone has embraced the change fully, but this is normal and as with any change some take longer than others to adapt.

Generally, I see people following the new rules, with few questioning why they have to wear a face covering.  With the mindset that by doing these things we are in fact being a good citizen and protecting others and those we love; we have collectively defined an acceptable way people should behave for now.  Like anything new there will be some who struggle to follow the new way of doing things, but over time and with increased focus and support, they will also change their behaviour as this new way becomes the “New Norm”.  In business this means we need to keep reiterating the new standard, reinforce through our own actions, and police through regular 2-way dialogue and process confirmation.

If you had told me 6 months ago that you could get the majority of people across the world to wear a face covering, stay at home, not see family, and even wash their hands regularly I would have never have believed it could happen.

So, what have we learned?

  • To change the way we do things, and the way people behave we first need to change the way they think.  We can do this several ways but challenging the way they currently see the world whilst being honest, transparent and explaining things clearly is always a great starting point.
  • Taking the time to explain the importance of the change is critical, also emphasizing what part people play in the big picture and how their actions affect the outcome.
  • Positive reinforcement can be promoted by leaders demonstrating through consistent actions that they fully support the change.
  • Removing impediments to make desired new behaviours easy whilst simultaneously making undesired behaviours hard is important in sustaining change.
  • Finally, rewarding positive behaviours either intrinsically or extrinsically can help create a virtuous cycle that promotes further positive change.

We have seen millions of people around the world making personal sacrifices during the pandemic response in the knowledge that it was for the greater good.  This has played a huge role in curbing the spread, duration and health impact of COVID-19.  With some reflection and imagination we can apply the learning gained from the approach taken to make large scale behaviour changes in organisations.  With a strong commitment and a concerted effort to pursue a small number of focused actions, I’m certain that businesses could benefit from the opportunity to reshape their culture and define their “new normal”.