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  • Dan Wakelin

What can lockdown teach us about change management?

We are hard-wired to be cautious of change; in evolutionary terms that instinct has kept us safe for thousands of years. That hard-wiring is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response and in our modern world where we are relatively safe from the immediate danger of predators, we need to understand how to manage this natural response, or risk being in a state of constant anxiety. One such approach for understanding and managing this is the SCARF model, which was created by the NeuroLeadership Institute to explain why sometimes, we all find change difficult. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. The lockdown and subsequent Covid-19 restrictions on our lives have impacted all of these areas, and can shed a light on what works, and doesn’t work, in change management.

Status. The pandemic has had a huge effect on status for many people. Some have skyrocketed to become household names with massive influence over our lives. For others, loosing their jobs can be a huge dent in self-status. Being asked to help is a great boost to our self-status, so it should come as no surprise that the Government has continually appealed to us to ‘help out’ and demonstrate our civic duty.

Certainty. The only certainty we have at the moment is that there is a lack of certainty. Back in March, Boris Johnson set out a roadmap and plan to deal with the pandemic; it was no accident that he, and those advising him, chose these words. They were deliberately trying to provide us with clarity and an ability to predict the future, even if only in three-week blocks. The now infamous three-word catchphrases were also a bid to provide clarity of message. I think everyone agrees that some worked better than others (stay alert, anyone?).

Autonomy. Our freedoms have been seriously curtailed, and until recently, in the UK more than anywhere else, much of the Government’s advice has been just that; guidance, suggestions, recommendations. All of this is designed to make us feel that we have a choice. Even when we have been forced to stay at home, for many people they have had an increase in autonomy in a work context, and this is something we are seeing many companies looking to continue and build upon in the long-term.

Relatedness. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits at the start of the pandemic was the sense of ‘being in it together’. After years of divisive politics, we finally had a reason to rally together for a common cause. We quickly learned that while we are in the same storm, some of us have boats that are better equipped and have fewer holes than others. This seemed to endear us to one another in a way that was reminiscent for me of the London 2012 Olympics (do you remember that for two weeks we spoke to people on the tube?).

Fairness. A sense of equality is crucial in change management; when we perceive that there are inconsistencies or different rules for different people, our tendency to be compliant wanes. For many, the ‘Dominic Cummings incident’ was a turning point because it played directly into this aspect of the SCARF model. In a work context, we’ve seen a huge increase in the ‘equality of experience’ as remote-first meetings have levelled the playing field. This too is something companies are telling us they want to build on in the future, and not default back to what we had before.

So, what has all of this taught us? We understand that to buy-in to the changes we are experiencing, we need to have all the boxes of the SCARF model ticked. Reflecting back on the last few months, we’ve bought in to the guidance when we had status, because we were being asked to help, and our role in saving lives was of critical importance. There was certainty about our approach for the weeks ahead, and the guidelines were clear and logical. We were granted as much freedom as the situation allowed, with many having more choice in their work than ever before. We felt part of a resistance, in the fight together, doing it for our friends, family and colleagues. And it was equitable and fair for everyone. Where we don’t have these things we feel less compelled to play along.

In the context of change management then, we need to try and create an environment where these five components thrive and are not threatened. This is not an easy endeavour and requires excellent leadership, and engagement at all levels of the organisation. While we may have a natural disposition for change, lockdown has demonstrated on a national scale, that if managed well, rapid and widespread change is possible.


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