Basic principle number one is that during a dual health and financial crisis, we are all going to be Preservers. Have you been focused on how to stockpile and conserve resources? Have you been mindlessly (or even mindfully, for that matter) cleaning and organizing more than usual? Have you been thinking more about your physical safety? This may feel like simple common sense, but it is behavior driven by deep-seated, prehistoric wiring.
But you should also remember basic principle number two…
We don’t know exactly what tomorrow will bring as far as the COVID-19 pandemic or the economy are concerned. However, there are some basic principles that can help us prepare, guide our actions, and put a sense of order on what is happening to us.
Regarding the virus, there are many unknowns but we know that “social distancing” will reduce the number of cases and save lives.
Regarding the economy, we know that putting the economy into hibernation will lead to massive job loss and cause a major liquidity problem, so infusing capital into the economy is necessary.
Beyond that, there are many unknowns, but having some foundational principles to operate from can be useful when planning our next steps.
The impact of these dual crises on organizations is profound, and while many leaders are desperately focused on how to keep their businesses alive, it is helpful to remember some general principles about human nature that will help leaders navigate the psychological dynamics unfolding in the workforce.
If you’re familiar with my work, you are aware of my emphasis on the three instinctual domains—Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting. (You can read an overview here.) In a nutshell, each domain comprises a cluster of fundamental needs and the deeply rooted impulses to behave in ways that satisfy those needs.
- The Preserving domain includes needs related to survival, security, comfort, resources, well-being.
- The Navigating domain includes needs relating to identity, role, inclusion, and the impact of group dynamics.
- The Transmitting domain includes needs related to attracting attention and intense bonding with others.
Under normal times, we each have a bias toward one of these domains and the needs in that domain innately feel more important and interesting to us than the others. Our biases serve, in a sense, as a system of values and our habitual behaviors tend to be aimed at satisfying those values. Our instinctual bias seems to be pretty fixed, but during extreme circumstances we will develop an instinctual impulse to attend to the needs threatened by those circumstances.
Therefore, basic principle number one is that during a dual health and financial crisis, we are all going to be Preservers. Have you been focused on how to stockpile and conserve resources? Have you been mindlessly (or even mindfully, for that matter) cleaning and organizing more than usual? Have you been thinking more about your physical safety? This may feel like simple common sense, but it is behavior driven by deep-seated, prehistoric wiring.
Leaders—are you hyper-focused on how to cut costs, keep your employees safe and healthy, and pull in as many receivables as possible? Do you lay awake at night wondering if your company has a viable future? Are you spending your days alternating between a feeling of paralysis and a damn-the-torpedoes urgency to execute?
Welcome to the Preserving domain.
And these are the things you should be focused on given the circumstances. We are wired with these innate impulses to ensure our survival and reproduction. Without them, we would be lost. So you should be in Preserving mode right now, because circumstances call for it.
But, you should also remember basic principle number two—while we are engaged in the Preserving domain, issues related to the Navigating domain start to bubble up and become paramount as we start to feel some sense of control or stability in the Preserving domain. As these crises run their course or even start to feel like the status quo, our attention to the Preserving domain will start to stabilize and we will start to feel anxiety regarding the Navigating domain. People will want to know what the future holds for their careers, their identities, their status, and their social groups. They will wonder “Who are we now? Where do we go from here? How will we relate to each other?”
People will very soon have a growing need for connection. Humans are a social species, we need contact, we need connection, we need to share our story with others and hear theirs in return. “Social distancing” will start to feel like more and more of a psychological burden if we are not careful to set up opportunities for occasional non-transactional interactions. In other words, we need to find effective ways to ensure that people still get a chance to gather at the water fountain to connect and make small talk, even if virtually. Sharing our experiences with others is a balm for trauma and grief and empower us to move on with a sense of hope.
Today, while the preserving impulses are so active in us, people want leaders who will help us see that we will be safe in the short-term. We want to see our leaders taking the necessary steps to protect us from exposure to the virus and to make smart financial moves.
As the Navigating impulses start to increase, people will look for leadership that presents a sense of clarity, a realistic roadmap for the future, a feeling of belonging and identity. And the CEO alone cannot provide sufficient leadership—people will need more hand-holding and reinforcement than under normal times, which means that your frontline and mid-level managers must be more capable and supportive than ever before.
While the details of what the future will bring are not predictable, the broad trends are and understanding them can help us get ready now. A virus that spreads through social contact can be mitigated by reducing social contact, so the sooner we increase social contact the better. The same broad predictability applies regarding human nature—a social species will need contact, meaning, a sense of identity, and clarity of purpose. It is up to you as a leader to start preparing yourself and your leadership teams to provide that today.