We should stop trying to make ourselves feel better about COVID-19
Published by: Michelle Weston, CEO of the Good Business Initiative
I wonder how many case studies will come from our experience of COVID-19? Beyond what we will learn scientifically and physiologically, there will be observations from the economic and social fallout, and of course, from the recovery. We are currently a long way from the peak of the outbreak in the UK and the US. Yet, there is already a steady stream of articles and posts arguing for the positive takeaways that will come from this situation. There are also predictions for changes that, while enacted swiftly in response to the crisis, will stick with us. For example, welcome changes that will come from spending more time with our family as a result of restrictions in business travel and isolation or the positive impact on the climate emergency from reduced aviation and production. Many have noted the potential for the positive impact on gender equality with the broader adoption of remote and flexible working. This virus is also exposing the staggering inequality in worker’s rights. Not to mention the optimism I hear, that this crisis will increase healthcare investment and the re-establishment of the scientific voice in this era of fake news. These optimistic outcomes are attractive, and we know that they support our ability to be resilient. Optimism can help us frame and seize opportunities, plan, adapt, and sustain us as we muddle through.
But, will these hoped for long-term changes actually come about?
Once we realise we can manage our businesses with 80pc less air-travel, will we forever do without those flights to New York that not only take us away from our family but melt a shockingly large amount of the polar ice caps? Will changes in roles at home as a result of crisis mitigation or self-isolation lead to a long-term closure in the gender pay gap? Will we be better prepared for the next disaster? Address worker’s inequalities? Sadly, I think the answer to all these questions is – probably not. We are destined to forget this crisis relatively quickly, however painful (1). Even during this situation, we will underestimate the timescales, overestimate the wisdom of the actions of others, and over-simplify the risks.
These types of behaviours are considered by two Wharton professors, Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther, in the ‘The Ostrich Paradox’. In this book, they discuss how we have never been better equipped to deal with disasters, and yet we often still fail to do so.
We fail to evacuate when advised to do so. We rebuild in hazard-prone areas after experiencing a disaster. We don’t wear helmets when riding motorcycles. We often purchase insurance only after experiencing a disaster and then cancel our policy a few years later if we haven’t made a claim.
We would rather avoid the risk of “crying wolf” than sound an alarm. (2)
So what can we do?
The authors draw on cognitive psychology and behavioural economics to identify a series of decision-making biases that are at the root of many errors in long-term planning. (2)
- Myopia – a tendency to focus on overly short future time horizons when appraising immediate costs and the potential benefits of protective investments.
- Amnesia – a tendency to forget too quickly the lessons of past disasters.
- Optimism – a tendency to underestimate the likelihood that losses will occur from future hazards.
- Inertia – a tendency to maintain the status quo or adopt a default option when there is uncertainty about the potential benefits of investing in alternative protective measures.
- Simplification – a tendency to selectively attend to only a subset of the relevant facts to consider when making choices involving risk.
- Herding – a tendency to base choices on the observed actions of others.
Addressing these biases should help us and our organisations deal with this unfolding situation more fully and perhaps also help support those long term hoped for, positive changes. Theoretically, if leaders can recognise that these biases are at play, then they can design strategies to overcome them. However, we know that overcoming biases is difficult. Even though individuals may understand rationally how their actions and decisions can be influenced by bias, often, this will not lead to a change in behaviours. Rational understanding is not enough. To effect long-term change, we must instead stay engaged with the emotional sides of our decision-making processes.
As neuroscience has developed, so too has our understanding of how we make decisions. We now know that it is not rationality that drives decisions but instead, the emotional parts of our brain (4). This understanding does not mean we should not be rational, but rather that we can overestimate the power of rationality. So, what does this mean for us now? To change behaviours and to improve our decision making and the long-term impact post the crisis, then we need to reflect on how we feel in these uncertain times. We must also find ways to remember these feelings. This focus on our emotional experience can make us uncomfortable; emotions like fear, anxiety, and powerlessness are tough to manage. However, recognising these emotions, and resisting the urge to suppress them, will enable us professionally and personally to understand the situation and the risks better. If we grasp and acknowledge the risks, then we can plan for them, manage them as they unfold, and crucially, really learn from them. Then there is some hope that those learnings will lead to sustained change, and the positive outcomes that we so aspire for will, in fact, stick.
CEO of the Good Business Initiative
Inclusivity, Dealing in Uncertainty, Staying Connected: Coaching Comment March 2020
- Leading with empathy in virtual times
- Staying curious and Leading through adversity
- Building resilience through conversation
- Tips from our Global Coach team on how to find a remote working style that suits
- Meyer, R., Kunreuther, H., “Issue brief: The Ostrich Paradox: Why we under prepare for disasters”, May 2018, https://riskcenter.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Ostrich-Paradox-issue-brief.pdf
- Meyer, R., Kunreuther, H., The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Under Prepare for Disasters, Wharton School Press, 2017.
- ECC Insights, “Empathy – The Missing Link to Inclusion”, The Executive Coaching Consultancy, 2020, https://executive-coaching.co.uk/ecc-articles/empathy-the-missing-link-to-inclusion/