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Tom Tavares is an organizational psychologist and head of Tavares Consulting Ltd. Dr. Tavares is the author of The Mind Field: What’s Missing in Running Our Organizations.

Centuries ago, before viruses were as understood as they are now, plagues were generally accompanied by a spike in social unrest. Without other evidence, people often returned to religious beliefs, including that others’ sins has sparked the rampant death. Today, amid a global pandemic, we have a far better understanding of the novel coronavirus that is our foe, but tensions are mounting all the same, with people flouting health advice. The reasons, however, are fundamentally the same: COVID-19 has exposed a gap in our understanding of the role and workings of organizations.

Before this crisis, it was easy to take educational institutions and business establishments for granted. If schools closed, students transferred. If firms failed, other jobs were available. But when lockdowns upended everyday life, it became clear just how essential these organizations were, and how little we understood how they actually functioned.

It’s also become clear how much faster individuals react than companies do. As word of the pandemic spread, people emptied store shelves, causing shopkeepers to then place orders with suppliers and wait for deliveries before restocking. Customers who thought organizations behave like humans found such “delays” annoying, and let the people they interacted with know it – front-line store managers and cashiers.

The reality, however, is that organizations are built differently than people. They’re shaped like a pyramid, with decision-making power residing at the top. Work is split into levels and specialized departments and jobs. These hierarchies create focus, which then boosts productivity, but they also often isolate people. This slows the flow of information, especially any bad news that might signal a need for changes. The result: an increase in the time it takes to respond.

Because hierarchies are everywhere we look, the “delays” we have seen in COVID-19 responses should have been entirely expected. Indeed, the hierarchies in the Chinese government generally punishes and restricts bad news, such as the first outbreak; the hierarchies in the World Health Organization had to gather myriad technical data points before they could declare a pandemic; the hierarchies in governments around the world had to wait on information before it could act on quarantining travellers.

Managing organizational change is a problem that extends far beyond this year’s pandemic. In 2013, the Harvard Business Review found that two-thirds of promised corporate changes failed to meet their goals. Since the field of change management emerged in about 1970, tools, training and more than 80,000 books have been produced – but no clear progress. Surprisingly, the author of that article claimed the concepts were sound and faulted individual leaders, instead.

Despite the Scientific Revolution in the mid-1500s, two centuries passed before practical uses of science ignited the Industrial Revolution. The lack of progress in executing changes casts doubt on models. Faulting leaders neglects the isolation that is often inherent in organizations, and ignores the fact that change is accelerating.

The COVID-19 crisis drives home the value of organizational responsiveness. After SARS and MERS outbreaks in recent years, countries such as Taiwan and South Korea fortified their pandemic response and communication systems, which helped them react to COVID-19 more quickly. Countries where leaders withheld bad news or failed to enact change when flaws were previously discovered have struggled through this pandemic.

The gap in knowledge about managing organizational change has created endless and frustrating confusion. People have suffered from decades of failed changes, seemingly for no reason. The ensuing distrust has only deepened divisions and given rise to conspiracy theories and resistance to the “establishment,” as expressed in refusal by some to wear masks.

The recent Auditor-General’s report on Ontario’s response to COVID-19 only added to the confusion. It cited confusion, delays and conflicts. Though details vary, these patterns reflect the structure of organizations. Without that context, however, fingers were pointed at the leader, prompting an emotional reaction.

Arnold J. Toynbee, a historian who studied hierarchical empires, found that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” As failed changes eroded organizational foundations, rulers facing growing unrest tried to sustain unity by inciting the fears of enemies. With globalization, breakneck technological changes and pandemics bombarding people worldwide, nationalism has been on the rise.

The only way the mess we’re in could get worse is if leaders and the public fail to learn from it. Change was accelerating long before COVID-19. Luckily, the organizations supporting our lives have substantial untapped potential. Developing it is essential to our post-COVID recovery efforts and the capacity of our organizational footings to keep pace with change as it continues to accelerate. People are nimble – and so the fastest way to save lives and jobs is for us, individually, to follow health advice.

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