The COVID-19 epidemic suddenly changed the rules of the game for business executives. Until very recently, it seemed that the world was relatively stable, many factors in it are known and predictable, and for success you need to strive for perfection. But in times of crisis, when reality changes every day (or even every hour), when it is impossible to know with certainty what lies ahead or what is best to do, there is no time left for the pursuit of excellence.
Perfectionism suddenly ceased to be an advantage. Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergency program, has already been at the forefront of global health threats, including the fight against Ebola and now the coronavirus. He says of management during a crisis: “If you want to never make mistakes, then you will lose before you act. Speed exceeds perfection. Perfection becomes your enemy when it comes to emergency management. ”
In conditions of great uncertainty, leaders in all sectors are adjusting their strategies and supply chains, rewriting the rules of work, and sometimes completely rethinking everything on the go. This view of management requires flexibility of thinking. The problem is that human thinking is not adapted to this.
Evolution has programmed our minds to constantly switch attention, since in ancient times, a constant scan of the dangers of the landscape helped our ancestors survive. We are also prone to empathy, because in the past it was this quality that helped people get together in groups and create communities. And finally, for us, our ego means a lot, because this is the most basic mechanism of self-preservation.
In order to develop the flexibility of thinking, we must be able to control these three properties. We will take a closer look at each of them and discuss how to develop the flexibility of thinking during a crisis and show optimal results.
The problem of distractions
When you go through times of uncertainty, you need to be able to quickly change focus to see the changing overall picture, and then take action for the short term.
This can seem extremely difficult in an environment where an avalanche of information hits you: more emails, meetings, and news. Information overload increases the risk of distraction, prevents the maintenance of background awareness and prevents concentration. When your mind jumps from one to another, you are distracted, and not demonstrate the flexibility of thinking. You follow what needs attention, neglecting strategic interests or conscientious prioritization.
To solve this problem, we need to be able to quickly switch between focus and background awareness. Focus is our ability to focus on one task and effectively adhere to priority tasks. Awareness is our ability to see the big picture, the future and upcoming changes. Awareness allows us to identify and evaluate changes in the environment, preserve the meta-image of our organization and ultimately separate signals from noise. After evaluating the overall picture, we will need concentration to react decisively, to use the necessary opportunities and to proceed with a disciplined implementation of the plan.
If you want to test your flexibility of thinking and the ability to switch between focus and background awareness, try the following: while reading this sentence, take a sharp break from the text and think about your common priorities for today. Did you do it? Did the switch happen instantly or did you notice some kind of slowdown? Has any part of your consciousness lingered on the words you just read? If you can’t give a confident answer after the first attempt, try again: switch your attention from something detailed to something of a larger scale.
To increase the flexibility of thinking, right now think of your leader’s work as small sprints (together they can make a marathon, but each of them is a separate race). Between each sprint, allow yourself a few minutes to pause. Let your mind calm down even for a minute. Take many short breaks during the day during which you will not try to achieve anything. These breaks will deepen your focus and background awareness and help evaluate whether you are focusing on the right things.
(By the way, the flexibility of thinking is closely related to the practice of mindfulness, which strengthens the mental “muscles” for both concentration and awareness. There are many free apps to help you practice mindfulness).
The problem of our ego
Right now, the world is changing rapidly and leaders are responding quickly in an effort to stabilize and reposition their business. Unfortunately, the ego can interfere with these maneuvers. Our ego is usually tied to our past successes and to the way we acted before. When everything turns upside down and our past successes and familiar approaches suddenly become irrelevant, we feel our own vulnerability. We begin to cling even more strongly to a world that we knew and understood. The ego kills our ability to be flexible.
The cure for the ego is selflessness, for some time it takes the ego out of the game and literally leaves it every day at the front door to the office. Being selfless means asking yourself how I can serve the mission of the company, and not worry about fame, wealth and influence. For leaders, this means honestly admitting to yourself that you don’t know any answers, openly asking for advice, support, being interested in a different point of view and recognizing that it takes more than one pair of eyes to look into the unknown future.
Now that companies are forced to respond to the crisis associated with coronavirus, there are many surprising examples of dedication. For example, biotech company leaders are breaking down corporate walls to collaborate and support each other in the COVID-19 vaccine development race. Ginkgo Bioworks, for example, provides free access to its research and development platform to help others accelerate the development of diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutic agents.
Of course, dedication must be balanced with self-confidence. Your teams should feel your confidence in the strategy that they are implementing. If you can combine conviction with freedom from ego, you inspire a deep sense of trust and psychological security for members of your organization. So each part of your organization gets the opportunity to take balanced risks, adapt, innovate and move at the speed of a crisis.
Empathy (the ability to recognize and empathize with the emotions of others) is critical to good leadership. But in times of crisis, empathy can be an obstacle to developing the right plan of action. It can slow the speed of your reaction.
Juan Enriquez, Managing Director of Excel Venture Management, recently shared with his supervisors how to act in times of crisis: “You have to start thinking like surgeons. The surgeon does not tell himself when entering the operating room: “The patient will be hurt, and recovery over the next two months will be painful.” He thinks differently: “In order to save the patient’s life or to significantly improve his current condition, we must perform this operation.” And this is exactly what you should think about now as leaders. ”
Managers are often forced to make difficult decisions about layoffs, salary cuts, closure of work infrastructure facilities, etc., which negatively affects people’s lives. Many of us are sensitive people, we don’t like to hurt others, and because of this we risk not doing what needs to be done.
The remedy for paralyzing empathy is empathy. Empathy and empathy are very different from the psychological, emotional and neurological points of view. Empathy arises when we see that someone is suffering, but this feeling usually remains within us. Empathy is more constructive. It begins with empathy, and then goes out with the intention of helping.
To see empathy in action, take a look at the actions and recent statements of Unilever CEO Alan Jope. He expresses deep sympathy for those who have become ill with the coronavirus, and those who care for the victims. And he turns these emotions into a very clear and bold action plan, which includes helping with goods worth more than € 100 million and another € 500 million in cash to ease the burden of small retail customers and vulnerable suppliers. Jope also proposed proclaiming May 12 “Aid Day” in the United States and donating all essential items manufactured at 14 Unilever factories in the United States to local community partners.
To bring more empathy into your leadership style and develop greater flexibility of thinking, develop a habit, ask yourself a simple question when you are next to another person: “What benefit can I bring him?” This simple question, if repeated many times during the day, will gradually change your way of thinking and acting.
Overcoming the three obstacles described in the article during the crisis or at any other time with the help of concentration and awareness, dedication and empathy, you can act consciously and flexibly.