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Maintaining motivation in uncertain times


At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic everyone rose to the challenge; in the health and care sector people did whatever it took to keep their teams and service afloat. Three months later the trajectory of the pandemic remains unclear and people are beginning to realise that we’re in this for the long haul. The future is uncertain, it’s impossible to plan anything, even a holiday. This can be tiring, demotivating, and team morale may suffer.

William Bridges’ model of psychological transitions1 is one way to understand what it means to grapple with change and live with uncertainty. He emphasises that transition is an internal process of our minds catching up with the new reality involved in the actual changes that are happening. This might be when we take on new roles or return to old roles; one or both these scenarios may be playing out for people as the system responds to Covid-19.

Three stages of transition

Bridges identifies three stages of transition that people pass through:

  • ending, losing, letting go of old ways and identities

  • the neutral zone where the old reality is gone and the new one isn’t yet fully formed

  • the new beginning working with new energy and purpose.

People pass through these stages at different paces, often moving backwards and forward rather than neatly stepping through in sequential order. He suggests that leaders can best support their teams to manage transitions by helping people navigate these stages.

Covid-19: the neutral zone?

In responding to Covid-19, many people have changed role and accepted different responsibilities and as they come to terms with what this means for them, they find themselves in the ‘neutral zone’ of Bridges’ model. This is where many people find themselves now. This is the psychological no-man’s-land between the old reality and the new one, when the old ways of doing things are gone but the new doesn’t feel clear or comfortable yet. It is also the time when old habits are replaced with new ones, better suited to the new situation.

Characteristics of the neutral zone

  • People’s anxiety rises and motivation falls; they feel disoriented and can doubt themselves. Energy can be used for coping tactics rather than work. Productivity may suffer and old weaknesses in a team or service can worsen.

  • Teams can become divided: some people want to rush forward and complete changes, while others want to go back to the old ways.

  • However, it can be a very creative time as new ideas and systems fall into place.

What can leaders do?

Leaders can best support their teams by offering structure and containment, protecting, encouraging, and creating opportunities.

  • Strengthen connections within the team and communicate a lot – the neutral zone can be a lonely place.

  • Help people to understand the bigger picture by situating new changes within the whole .

  • Create clear temporary structures or reporting lines so everyone knows how they’re working, even if these are short term.

  • Set some important short-term goals that will give people a sense of achievement and movement.

  • Review processes to ensure they can deal with the constantly changing situation.

  • Look for every opportunity to brainstorm and develop ideas. Encourage experimentation.

  • Resist the impulse to push for certainty – you don’t know what that looks like yet. But believe it will come and with it a new energy for the new direction.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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