Surviving and Thriving in a Pandemic

Are you familiar with normalcy bias? If the terminology doesn't ring a bell, the behaviours associated with this bias might.

In "Overcoming Psychological Obstacles to Beating Coronavirus" author Eric Haseltine, Ph.D. defines it this way, "The normalcy bias, simply put, is people's tendency to discount the risks of a pending or developing disaster because they interpret their current situation as a continuation of normal life."

We saw this in the early days of the pandemic when many people denied that there was a crisis unfolding. Now we see it playing out in the form of COVID fatigue, whereby employees, feeling tapped out by endless warnings and changing protocols, are starting to revert to old “normal” behaviours.

Kirby James, President of Unleash Potential, talked to CEO Network members about the need to shift mindset and adapt the way we think as individuals and organizations to move forward out of this crisis.

He outlined four steps leaders can take to help employees let go of the notion that they can return to normal and help them see the opportunity the pandemic presents to make the world a better place.

  1. Nurture Adaptability

He shared a story from Jim Collins's book, Good to Great[1]. In the book, Collins talks about the Stockdale Paradox based on Admiral Jim Stockdale's experience in the "Hanoi Hilton" prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam war. Stockdale endured eight years and being tortured more than twenty times with nothing to pin hope on—no prisoners' rights, possible release dates, or even the certainty of release. He attributed survival to the ability to retain faith that he would prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, while also confronting the most brutal facts of his reality. When asked about those who did not survive, he noted that they were the optimists who died of broken hearts because they didn't confront the brutal facts. Instead, they continuously set themselves up for disappointment by assigning timelines to their release, which never came to fruition.

In relating this story to the pandemic, James cautions that leaders need to find a way to balance commitment and faith with reality. Leaders must be steadfast in avoiding the lure of headlines that promise a return to normal by a certain date. Just like Stockdale observed in his fellow prisoners, this is a slippery slope that can cause serious problems and take a psychological toll. "You can't promise things will be better by September, but you can promise it's going to get better," says James.

He points to changes we've seen over the past year in our family lives, communities, and workplaces as examples of our adaptability. For example, our experiences with drive-ins, dining out, using public transit changed, and many businesses pivoted quickly and surpassed pre-COVID performance.

  1. Give structure

He notes that promoting adaptability without structure can create chaos. Even the way you talk about the situation can provide the necessary structure to move people from what was to what will be.

"There is power in talking about where you are going and why. It provides context and gives people permission to let go of the past."

Letting go is critical to moving forward. If we hold on too tight to what we knew before or things we feel we've lost, it can stunt progress. Leaders need to recognize that some people will really struggle with this, but by showing them a new future, you can help them learn to let go and shed their normalcy bias.

Making them co-creators of the new future is also crucial. It provides people with a view of what is possible and gives them some skin in the game. They can begin to see what is in it for them.

  1. Normalize change

There is a perception that our current mindset is the one we are stuck with for life, but this is not the case. "Mindset is not fixed. It is changeable and fluid when we know how to do it," says James.

The authors of "To be a great leader you need the right mindset" published in the Harvard Business Review said, "Mindsets are leaders' mental lenses that dictate what information they take in and use to make sense of and navigate the situations they encounter." The article cites the example of Microsoft, which was transformed by CEO Satya Nadella's mission to cultivate a growth mindset to address the organization's stagnant market capitalization and stock price. The collective shift in thinking tripled market capitalization and stock prices, which had remained largely unchanged for 13 years prior.

James stressed that nurturing mindset allows us to adapt and helps to normalize change. "Breaking concrete with your hand is not normal for most, but in the martial arts community, it is not only normal; it is expected. The martial arts are like academics, the military, or music in that you progress through skill levels. You are constantly redefining normal and saying, 'yes I can' instead of 'no I can't.'"

  1. Create new habits

The struggle between what was, what is and what will be can be challenging for leaders. People are in different places when it comes to accepting the brutal realities of the pandemic. Some are overly optimistic that we will return to what was, and others are feeling a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety about what will be. These mindsets manifest in a variety of behaviours, and, sometimes, bad habits. However, by acknowledging people's concerns and creating structure for them to be heard, leaders can encourage new habits.

When someone defaults to doomsday or fear-based thinking, it won't work to tell them to stop. Usually, that becomes a catalyst for the person to do it more. And if they feel like you are not prepared to listen, they'll find someone else who will. James says you don't want to give oxygen to bad habits, but if you use a framework for the conversation, you are not only providing an outlet, you're encouraging critical thinking.

"These conversations can help you identify weak spots and trends. They give you a means to process, analyze and compare. You not only provide the outlet, you begin shifting behaviours and thinking, and you may benefit from what is revealed in the process."

Air Canada has built a system for this kind of critical thinking and analysis and the organization has started to reward employees who help them identify opportunities. "Instead of focusing on the downturn in travel due to COVID, they looked at turning Air Canada into a centre for vaccinations. They're now looking at other things, including converting an airplane into a flying vaccination centre to reach remote areas."

He says coaching people this way can reveal great opportunities. "Make it something they want to be part of."

There is a well-known expression that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Even COVID presents an opportunity that shouldn't be overlooked.

In the case of the pandemic, the prevailing mindset is one of tragedy and loss, but James asks can you shift your thinking? “Can the pandemic be turned into an opportunity? That is the conversation leaders should be having.”

1 Collins, J., Good to Great, HarperCollins, 2001

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