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Why toilet paper?

What we can learn about human behaviour from COVID-19 and toilet paper phenomenon.

It’s impossible to ignore what is taking place in light of COVID-19, and it’s been incredible to see how this new threat is impacting human behaviours. People around the world have been stocking up on hand sanitizers, major sporting events like soccer have been cancelled, and handshakes have become elbow touches. All the examples above help to prevent the spread of the virus, but what about the latest craze with toilet paper?

A fascinating article from CNN, ‘The psychology behind why toilet paper, of all things, is the latest coronavirus panic buy’, was shared with me by a colleague and it got me thinking about the difference of this behaviour to the rest.  As the article states, unlike hand sanitizer, toilet paper doesn’t prevent the spread of the virus and isn’t a staple like water or bread during times of uncertainty.   So why then are grocery stores around the world, sold out of this product? What is the compelling force that is causing people to stock up on toilet paper, and how do these human behaviours relate to the world of change management?

In today’s workplace, change is constant and despite all that we do to manage it, we have found there are always interesting (and sometimes unexpected) human behaviours that are revealed when people feel like they don’t have control over the situation. These behaviours are an emotion-based reaction to a perceived threat. You may have seen some of these examples yourself:

  • The development of organic workarounds, especially with enterprise resource planning (ERP) or IT implementations—looking for opportunities to bend the new system back to the legacy ways of work.

  • Claiming ownership of inanimate objects, like filing cabinets, that aren’t really needed or required to do their jobs.

  • Attempting a coup, and resisting to even learn or use new systems so that they can continue to work as they have, despite the old way not working.

What we’ve learned is that, similar to the toilet paper phenomenon, it’s natural for individuals to react to change that is outside of their control by latching on to something that they can control, even if it has nothing to do with the change.

So, give some thought to the business transformation you are currently navigating. What are the toilet paper behaviours you are seeing in others? What are the behaviours you’re exhibiting yourself as a result of anticipatory anxiety?

In such situations, there are many things that can be done to support and enable change successfully. Here are our top five tips:

  1. Listen and be careful not to dismiss the behaviour as humorous or trivial.

  2. Address their concerns and support them by providing honest information and the opportunity to engage in dialogue, so that you can come up with a resolution together. This can be done on a 1:1 basis, or team meetings and town halls.

  3. Kick start training and reinforcement activities to help prevent them from falling back into old habits. Here you’ll want to work closely with your change manager to develop reinforcement activities. It’s important to note that these usually take at least three months to complete after the change has taken place.

  4. Ensure your leadership team is engaged and equipped to support these new behaviours. This can be done through regular steering committee meetings or touchpoints, leader focused communications including key messages and continuous feedback.

  5. Connect the dots to the bigger picture and promote the common good. For the coronavirus, it’s easy for people to do their part by simply staying home if they are sick and from a business perspective, doing what you can to break down silos and have an inclusive work environment can go a long way.

So, once again let’s ask ourselves why toilet paper of all things and not food or water? The lack of toilet paper should be the least of our concerns and while the reaction to this change is illogical, the human behaviour of latching onto something that can be controlled is very natural.

We know that human behaviour during times of uncertainty and change varies from individual to individual, and it’s natural for people to go through many different emotions. To learn more about these stages, I invite you to check out Harbinger’s change curve here.

And if you have more questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly or contact us here.



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