I just received a note from my alma mater about their plans for the fall, which will include only inviting back about half of the student body to be on campus. Earlier today I completed a questionnaire for my son’s high school to help them in making their own plans for the fall, which will likely also include some remote learning, and possibly some in-person classes.  While I wasn’t surprised by either of these communications, my heart still sank as I read them. I could hear the tantrum beginning in my mind, “I don’t want this fall to be different! I want life to go back to normal!”

What’s striking to me is how many times throughout the COVID-19 situation I’ve had this experience – and I think it says something about how we (at least some of us) adapt to change.

Specifically, my experience has been one of incremental acceptance. Each step along the way there’s been the current reality in front of me, and then the next piece coming around the corner. As that piece appears, I go through all of the phases of grief about it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It’s interesting to me that I’ve experienced this piece-by-piece, rather than all-at-once. It’s like my mind can only process so far into the future. Beyond that, I just don’t want to know.

There was the first week, when I came home from a business trip to the first signs of shutting down and had to accept that I couldn’t take my Dad to our weekly lunch. Then learning that my husband would be working from home. Then that my son’s school would be closed for a while. Then that it would be closed for the rest of the semester. Then that our summer vacation would be canceled. Next that two professional gatherings I love and look forward to will not be happening in person. And now, that back-to-school will not be what we’re used to.

Anyone thinking rationally (including me) could have predicted each of these (except perhaps the first) at least a month before I was willing to take it in. The signs have been there, and the conversations have been taking place in the news and on social media. But my version of coping has been to look only about 4 – 6 weeks out, and ignore the rest. The result has been this cyclical grief-and-acceptance pattern. As I sit here with a pit in my stomach, I can’t help wonder why I can’t just get it over with all at once and accept that life as we know it is on permanent hold, possibly never the same again?

Regardless of the “why,” I think there’s a lesson here for managers who are leading people through the COVID-19 situation – and any major change, really. Each one of us will have a planning horizon we’re willing to consider, and a point beyond which we’re unwilling to look. This has both benefits and risks. The benefit of curtailing one’s future view is the ability to stay focused on the challenges at hand, without becoming overly obsessed or paralyzed by future scenarios and unknowns. The risk, of course, is that burying one’s head in the sand about the future tends to get in the way of planning for it.

Several years ago I worked as a change manager for a major global process and IT system change. One of the biggest issues we faced on the project was getting people to pay attention to the fact that once the new system went live, they would no longer be able to do business as usual. Some teams were able to see that, and plan for it. Others were more like me in the face of COVID-19: blissfully in denial of the long-term reality. Needless to say, those departments had the roughest experience at “go live.”

So how, as a manager, can you help people come to grips with the reality of change?  How can you help them take the longer view?

Looking at my own pattern, I think one piece of the puzzle is to help people see possibilities. For example, when we let go of our vacation plans, an alternative appeared that I’m now quite excited about. When I think about a different kind of schedule for my son this fall, I can see some potential benefits. Maybe with online classes, the school schedule could be adjusted to more fully account for teenage biorhythms. Maybe they’ll be able to cover the material more efficiently. Maybe taking more responsibility for his own progress through the material will better prepare him for the independence of college.

So what possibilities can you begin to imagine for yourself for the second half of the year? If we don’t go back to “business as usual” as we used to think of it, what else becomes possible? How can you make the most of the current situation in your career? How can you use what you’ve learned to be an even better manager?

How could your organization learn and adapt from the shifts you’ve made to adjust to quarantine to be even stronger?

I’ve captured some additional lessons for how to lead your team through these challenging and uncertain times in this free online workshop.  Watch it here.

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