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Architects of Change

How HR Leaders Are Creating Adaptive Organizations in a Crisis

  • August 2020

Senior HR leaders are working the biggest jigsaw puzzle ever made, collaborating with people at different levels to piece their communities, organizations, and cultures back together in the wake of a global pandemic and a surge of protests against inequity. The challenge with this puzzle is that the edges are rounded; no one knows exactly what the complete picture, or “the new normal,” should look like. However, there is clear consensus that businesses and society have changed—and will continue to change for some time. How HR leaders adapt to and lead through those changes—and enable their companies to adapt—will strongly influence which businesses succeed.


Without a playbook to draw from, Chief People Officers (CPOs) continue to rely on each other and their communities for shared solutions. In July 2020, Egon Zehnder convened a virtual meeting of more than 80 Chief People Officers from around the world for a conversation with Amy Elizabeth Fox, Co-Founder and CEO of Mobius Executive Leadership, and two Mobius Senior Experts: Zander Grashow, a pre-eminent thinker on evolutionary change in organizations and leaders and co-author of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing the World, and Dr. Srini Pillay, neuroscientist and former Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The discussion centered on how HR/people leaders need to show up—employing adaptive leadership, showing authenticity, and addressing conflict productively to create organizations who will survive and thrive in unchartered waters.

Adapting to Change

Today’s environment requires everyone to make dramatic shifts in how they live and work. While many people are aware of the need for change, the challenge lies in adaptation. There are four levels to adaptation, according to Zander Grashow: awareness (of what needs to change), willingness (to do the work), bandwidth (time and space), and craft (to do it). Some leaders in this moment have made it to the awareness stage but struggle with willingness. “People aren’t afraid of change—it’s fear of loss,” Grashow explained. “It is fear of losing what they already know works to survive.”

An additional challenge to adaptation is exhaustion—not only for leaders but also for nearly every employee in an organization. “People are in need of sleep, peace, or nourishment,” Grashow said. “As CPOs, we need to figure out how we meet the exhaustion in the context of social issues, an economic crisis, and a health pandemic.”

In order to embed adaptation in their businesses, HR leaders must focus on building three key assets within their organizations: 

  • Psychological Safety: Blame, anger, unproductive conflict, and fear—all things that tend to bubble to the surface in crises—are hindering this security. “These reactive tendencies and inadequate handling of strong emotions are insufficient self-management to help leaders deal with the pressure of this moment,” Amy Fox explains. “We need to think about safety in a cutting-edge way—to build more authentic, generative, and intimate workplaces and invite more conversations that are delicate, tender, and emotionally charged into the collective living room. And we need to create guardrails that allow these conversations to be fertile and not destructive.”

  • Resilience: Resilience is challenged in times of uncertainty. This doesn’t mean expect the worst—though 75 percent of people will—but instead to accept that you do not know the answers or the outcome. To reduce anxiety and fear during these times and increase resilience, Srini Pillay suggests leaders follow the CIRCA model, which stands for:

    • Chunking: Break down the fear into its core parts

    • Ignore the mental chatter: Bring your attention to your breath and ignore the noise

    • Reality check: Self talk that reminds you that “This too shall pass”

    • Control check: Consciously decide to give up the things you cannot control

    • Attentional shift: Shift your attention to the solution to the problem rather than the problem itself

Resilience is not built effectively through reframing or finding the silver lining when there is fear of a predator, such as the coronavirus or when fear is extreme, Pillay emphasizes, as this will stress the brain even more. Instead, one needs to recognize the stressor, and consciously choose “interpretation bias modification” where one identifies and changes exaggerated or catastrophic thinking. In addition, seasoned practitioners can practice mindfulness, while those not well versed in mindfulness have a better chance of this working if they do this in nature or use virtual reality to feel as though they are in nature. Also building in unfocused time for your brain throughout the day—which could even be a short nap—is critical.

  • Possibilities: HR leaders must help employees see what is possible with change and what might be blocking them from embracing these opportunities. “Have an envisioning exercise for the company and anchor yourselves to that vision,” Pillay suggests. You have to focus on the script and quality of the mental movie and not just engage haphazard, light-hearted wishful thinking.

Authenticity and Sensitivity Required

Some leaders are hesitant to ask employees to embrace even more change in stressful times, however, they may not have a choice if they want their companies to survive this period; research points to a shrinking life span for companies and a struggle to return to pre-recession levels. When asking people to make substantive change, Fox noted the importance of understanding trauma and its lasting effects. “The future we thought we could see is dissolving,” she said. “For many people, particularly those with earlier adverse incidents, this destabilization can cause a reactivation of historic fear and requires an extra level of attunement, sensitivity, and support from leaders.”

“Leaders everywhere need to see themselves as sources of inspiration,” Fox added. “As Srini pointed out, neuroscience tells us the more we are in crisis, the harder it is for people to imagine a positive outcome or a shining future. Leaders can be that beacon of possibility.”

In addition to trauma literacy, HR leaders must also be aware of how “mortality salience” can affect behaviors. This means that when people are reminded of their mortality, they are more likely to cling to their specific cultural worldviews and beliefs than to be open to change. “When you think about the questions we have to answer—for example, how do we have discussions about race in ways that make sense for everyone—the brain is going to hold onto its prior point of view more strongly,” Pillay explained. “You find people saying things like, ‘Let’s be anti-racist.’ The sentiment is justified, but under stressful conditions, when you tell your brain not to do something, it does the opposite.”

He urges people to engage in point-of-view conversations. “Don’t start with, ‘Hey, I need support.’ Say, ‘Let me understand how this is looking from your point of view,’ and ask, ‘How do you think this looks from my point of view?’ Pillay said. “Don’t be confrontational—introduce it with nuance.” This is where mindfulness comes into play, again, according to Pillay. “If you have a mindfulness practice for yourself and the organization, it takes you out of a reactive bias situation,” he said. Another option is taking a walk together. “If you walk in tandem, it increases your trust in someone and your ability to remember,” Pillay explained. “You could also do this online/in a virtual setting by practicing somatic or some other rhythmic exercise together.” All of these activities help to take us out of the reactive bias situation.

Addressing Conflict Productively

Change does not come without conflict, and CHROs and CPOs will need to be able to address conflicts productively—a skill that needs to be built over time. Fox pointed to several major reasons why people derail in difficult conversations:

  • When people are too rigid in their thinking. In a crisis, once you have a perspective, it is difficult to suspend your ideas to accept another point of view. You need to cultivate curiosity over certainty and not be sealed off from learning.

  • When people are emotional and reactive, they are more defensive and less likely to benefit from collective intelligence and diverse ideas. You need to introduce them to basic emotional management skills and empathy so that they can handle the reactive dimension of a conversation and maturely host strong emotions in themselves and others.

  • When people feel a discussion is disrespectful of their identity or self-image. They are moved from defending their point of view to defending their “right to be.” This is the most explosive, fragile, and challenging situation in a high stakes conversation.

Fox noted that while it is important to grow your own abilities to facilitate difficult conversations, HR leaders must also know when a conversation requires additional support and step in. “Some conversations are heated and charged and not handled appropriately without a mediating voice or an expert in multi-stakeholder dialogue,” she noted. CPOs who have done their personal transformation work can more securely build the framework within organizations to have these conversations to unlock hope and collaboration and tolerate the heat some of these discussions entail.

What It Means to Lead Now

Transformation is not a one-time event, and the uncertainty surrounding us means the door remains open for continued transformation and subsequently adaptation. During these moments, leaders should reflect on their own ability to adapt, be authentic, and address conflicts productively. Only by doing so themselves will they be able shift from being experts with all of the answers to more collaborative team builders who invite others along their discovery journey. Leaders who can invite others to explore, learn, and heal with them will naturally move their organizational cultures from preferring autonomy and rigidity to building trust, inviting fresh intelligence, and fostering connective and collaborative tissue within their organizations, Fox explained.

These connections will be even more important if organizations aspire to be more nimble inside this volatile time. “Just because you have followers does not mean you are leading. Leadership is disrupting our own people at a rate they can tolerate,” Grashow noted. “We need a combination of mechanics (to fix what’s broken) and artists (to imagine a different future). This will allow us to do the change work in front of us.”

As has been repeated multiple times since the onset of 2020, the work of CPOs has never been more important. Anchoring one’s organization in purpose and values, and leading through vast uncertainty while facing into one’s own uncertainty are paramount. This is why it is critically important that CPOs make the space for themselves to stop, breathe, and ground themselves, while continuing to invest in themselves as leaders. It is highly likely that change will continue to come at us at an unprecedented speed, and organizations and society will rely on CPOs who can lead in a truly adaptive way, setting the tone of leadership from the front.

With special thanks to Amy Elizabeth Fox, Co-Founder and CEO of Mobius Executive Leadership, and Mobius Senior Experts Zander Grashow and Dr. Srini Pillay for their insights.

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