Back to normal like before Covid-19? No way!

For managers, politicians, employees, friends “Back to normal” seems to be the new outlook after a first vaccine is out and more to come. Understandably many seem to be obsessed with normal in current times. Well, it is either normal or unprecedented. 

Did we really think this was normal and do we want to go back?

What was normal about organizations and societies in February 2020 and before? Just as a reminder: Climate change, societal inequalities, race and gender issue, and mental health concerns in schools, at home, at work just about started to get real global and local attention. Just hitting home those are real problems for everyone and obstacles are abundant. Also many initiatives emerged to address the issues, yet early stages. Revisit the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations to see what we were and are really up to. Is this the normal, we want to go back to?

What do we really mean by normal?

There is a palpable exhaustion around us, be it from coping with negative economic and psychological implications or from utilising the huge the opportunities that organizations and people currently saw and see. Longing for something else than the current is very valid choice and an emotional necessity. What normal might actually mean, might be a worrying prospect, often portrait as the ‘new normal’.

Merriam-Webster shows a few options. Normal …

  • is “conforming to a pattern: characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine”.

What if those considering what is typical are biased in their judgements, and others have limited voice”?

  • is “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, procedure, or principle”

What if non-deviation is the norm and principle in some areas are flawed in the first place?

  • is “marked by healthy or sound functioning”
    Was it healthy what we, as organizational members, managers, stakeholders were experiencing in organisations and in leadership processes?

Let’s frame it following my colleague Karen Jansen at Henley Centre for Leadership and her 2004 Organization Science study. She speaks of as stasis-based momentum, which means persisting with or extending the current trajectory, but NOT changing it.

Do as humans, managers and employees at all levels in organisations actually put effort behind going back to perpetuating some the fundamental flaws we perfected – in a context that worked in so many ways for some, and in so many other ways not for others?

I am also aware that there are many outstanding organisation, teams and individuals. Our study ‘Work 2028 – Trends, Dilemmas & Choices’ from before Covod-19 showed that also senior people in organisations felt huge unease about their organisations’ sustained contributions to society and the organsations’ real reason for being in society.

Leadership processes for an unprecedented shift to a normal worth living

Learning from and facing the current events can be key. Organisations can take the opportunity to have a process and movement lead by multiple people in organisations to fundamentally evolve the firms and organizations we inhabit. Blended working yes important, flexible and fluid organising, leading and working, yes important, an additional tax on working at home, really?

Can we instead shift organisations now in an unprecedented way towards future fitness, when we consider the current as an unprecedented context? Towards a new dynamic equilibrium that works for more, if not all. And if NOT for all, why not?

Many organisations have it in themselves to make this shift, just take a sharp look at those that impressively adapted to the Covid-19 context. Basically a large scale experiential leadership learning journey.

Other organisations need a shift of mindsets towards a fundamentally different normal.

Try this! For a different normal

Here a few actions for the next virtual lunch, coffee break, senior executive meeting, …

  • Would you, with good conscience, want to hand over your future organisations and society to the next generations?
  • What repertoire of leadership processes have you seen in the last 10 months?
    From those which could you leverage in the next phase.
  • Beware of those who try to smash the Jeannie back into the bottle. We have seen what we called rotating leadership, multiple people leadership, bottom-up processes and more. But there are attempts to undo these practices and go back to a rigid leadership world.

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Prof Bernd VogelHenley Centre for Leadership

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