March 23, 2020

Opinion: COVID-19 – Organizational and societal change: one step at a time, one mountain at a time

medaillon manifestation

By Caroline Coulombe, Diane Alalouf-Hall & François Audet, researchers at OCCAH and members of the research team “Covid-19: Enhanced collaborative practices in complex, emergency, humanitarian and international response rooted in a duty of care approach »

With the collaboration of Alexandre Bédard, Véronique Duguay, lecturers at UQAM, and Daphnée Daniel, MGP Student.



When we travel to remote areas of the world for humanitarian work or take on mountain peaks for the pleasure of adventure and discovery, we quickly learn the importance of the mantra “climbing each mountain, one step at a time.”

It seems appropriate to transfer this reflection to the current organizational and societal situation. Crisis management, when well deployed, is in fact a succession of decisions taken in a moment of great uncertainty and ambiguity, based on partial and sometimes contradictory information, at an accelerated pace. Both the teams that manage the crisis and members of the media reporting on it need to control their emotions, as all these factors combined can provoke various reactions among them, both physiological (trembling legs, a faster heartbeat, loss of appetite or sleep) and psychological (denial, sarcasm, exaggeration, confusion, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating). Emotions are at the heart of these reactions. Yet emotions are often a great taboo in organizations.

It’s time to address this taboo head on and in a straightforward manner, because, along with our leaders, employees, colleagues and children, we are experiencing great emotions at this time. Everyone has their own way of reacting. We might bury our emotions deeply or, at times, be overwhelmed by them. Our provincial government is doing its best to manage our emotions through incremental decision-making processes, calm attitudes and supportive words, aiming to help us all get through this unprecedented period as best as we can. This escalation in information-sharing allows us to move towards a life transition: a societal transition, an organizational transition, a personal transition.

Transition is a path that begins with vision
Our day-to-day lives in organizations will be rethought and reinvented. Indeed, by its very nature, a crisis opens the breach, allowing us to “rethink processes,” “question our choices,” and “reinvent solutions.” Journalists are already offering up options, most of which focus on the use of technology: remote work, distance learning, remote communication, social distancing, remote voting, etc. However, we risk jumping to solutions while skipping the vision stage, and thus the path of transformation. There is a great deal of knowledge in the organizational literature on change management and strategic vision that managers cannot afford to ignore.

We propose a reflection on this societal and organizational transformation from the perspective that humans and their emotions are at the heart of this transformational movement. In her model outlining “4 essential strategic axes of transformation,”[1] Véronique Duguay suggests that one of the first fundamental steps to be implemented involves leadership on the part of senior management. This leadership anchors the credibility of the desired transformations and ensures consistency. Leadership requires providing a clear vision to stakeholders. Vision is much more than an idea of where we want to go. It is also about the values and choices that will colour that destination and implies a challenge for individuals – because any aimed-at change or transition means putting a certain ambition into that destination. A “good” vision in times of crisis and societal transition comes from senior leaders but is based on the ideas of stakeholders. It is socially co-constructed with the stakeholders involved.

We already see our government looking for solutions to procedural blockages and/or rule constraints, by discussing with nursing associations, for example, or by granting more power to pharmacists. Crisis management is on the move and small pieces of this future to be reinvented are already being co-constructed. Indeed, good crisis management requires a dual mechanism wherein “post-crisis” scenarios are both prepared and projected.

Above all, we encourage our decision-makers to value people. Understanding the needs of individuals, analyzing what works well or less well and drawing lessons along the way is a first step. Engaging local decision-makers and managers in the process is the second axis of Ms. Duguay’s model. Next is getting stakeholders and/or teams to contribute to identifying the new vision (axis 3) and the means to get there. Finally, supporting individuals in their own transition completes the transition cycle. All of this is done in a framework where emotions are endorsed and channelled positively, because, after all, resistance to change consists mainly in the accumulation of unaddressed concerns.

Depending on individual points of view, reactions, emotions and concerns will vary: “Will my tasks change?”; “Will we all keep our jobs?”; “Do we have to adapt our products?”; “Will everyone adapt?; “Is my organization strong enough to undertake this transformation?”; “Can’t we just go back to the way things were before?”; etc. We invite our leaders and decision-makers to consider all these elements, find a common vision and take action in a coherent way, right now.

The “post-crisis” is being prepared today despite uncertainty and fear, in parallel with crisis management. This direction through vision gives meaning and allows us to move forward, one step at a time, while managing fear, anger, denial, opportunism – in short, the best and worst of our emotions as individuals and organizations.

The day-to-day lives of individuals, as citizens and employees
With fear in the background, our day-to-day lives as individuals are not easy to manage because when fear sets in, we are weakened and more sensitive to risk, further feeding this emotion, which is nevertheless despised. This is the first step towards an irrational response, which can be dangerous in the context of health risks such as this one. Fear can be our response to the slightest announcement by the government, perhaps associated with a sign of general worsening, when in fact, as we all truly know, the real danger is the absence of decision-making. Far from being shameful, however, fear can be a tool for taking protective measures, as long as we don’t let ourselves be overwhelmed by anxiety-inducing rumours. So what can be done? Why not anchor ourselves in our day-to-day lives and focus on a healthier lifestyle? We have been given a wonderful gift through this crisis: time. What if this quarantine period was also a chance to step back and reflect on our relationship with work, stress and time? Are we going to see life slow down”[2] after the crisis? Nothing is certain, but we will certainly have experienced a slower pace for a few weeks.

So, in climbing this mountain, according to our own reality, the OCCAH invites us to take responsibility for and manage our emotions, despite their rise, allowing for a redefinition of our day-to-day lives and society, as smoothly as possible, one step at a time.







[1] Voir


[2] Voir les Slow movements  qui visent à ralentir la modernité .

Osbaldiston, N. (2013). Slow culture: an introduction. In N. Osbalidston (Ed.), Culture of the Slow: Social Deceleration in an Accelerated World (1st ed., pp. 1 – 18). United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.