It seems that the tsunami that hit us with the coronavirus is slowly rolling back now, at least in Europe, and we start seeing what it left us with. As we know, the aftermath of this tsunami will bring a lot of disruptive change to people, businesses, and the economy.
As a psychologist, I think it is important to point out that the way we are wired to respond to a threat like COVID-19 does not prepare as well to deal with these disruptive changes to come. They require a different mindset, a mental shift, if you will. Here is why.
We all know that we will die one day, so we find very effective ways to not think about our own death.
In the last couple of weeks, I was often reminded of a certain theory in social psychology. It’s 40-years old, well researched with hundreds of studies, got never really into the spotlight of public attention. It’s called terror management theory. It actually has not much to do with terrorism. It is all about our response to the terror of human existence. Big words, I know. But we are the only species that is aware of its own mortality. Basically, we all know that we will die one day. And to not be constantly terrorized by this thought, we find very effective ways to suppress it and to not think about our own death.
However, that is really difficult in a situation like the current pandemic. We are constantly reminded of our own mortality, through daily death rates in the media, people we know who have died, or even the ambulance sirens in the streets.
3 reactions face to fear
Terror management theory suggests that we respond in three ways when faced with our own mortality..
1) Seeking comfort in our close relationships
First, we seek comfort in the relationships to our loved ones, partners, parents, children. We want to be close to them. You hear a lot of people during the lockdown talking about rediscovering their families and reconnecting to close friends.
2) Seeking self-esteem
Then, second, we want to feel good about ourselves. We want to feel valued. We want to appear physically strong, wealthy, and important. Anything that boosts our self-esteem.
3) Seeking to confirm our beliefs
Third, we bolster and defend the ways we see the world. Our religious, political, and cultural beliefs as they give us a sense of order, structure - give us a place in the bigger picture of life, so to speak.
Reactions to fear prevent us from tackling challenges
All of these reactions are very understandable - and at the same time highly problematic when it comes to tackling the challenges ahead of us. Because they make us narrow down our focus and sticking to the status quo. When what is really required right now is to expand our focus, challenge our believes, and discover new opportunities, even if it means letting go of old habits, ways of thinking, and status symbols.
Reactions to fear are highly problematic because they make us narrow down our focus and sticking to the status quo, when it is required to challenge our believes and discover new opportunities.
1) New opportunities come from ‘weak ties’
Take the first reaction, for example. Yes, it is important to have strong relationships in times of crisis. They provide us with the comfort and emotional support we need. But new opportunities rarely come from the center of our social networks. They come from what network researchers call ‘weak ties’, the casual friends, the distant colleagues, and the acquaintances. You rarely hear about a job or business opportunity within your family but from a friend of a friend who happened to hear it from her colleague.
As Adam Grant recently emphasized in the New York Times, we need to rediscover and cultivate these weak ties that we lost through the crisis. This is also important for companies. Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro showed in their research, explained on this Harvard Business Review article, that companies facing disruptive change need change agents who are boundary spanners, who bring together people from distant and previously unconnected circles within the organization, not communal leaders who have strong relationships but limited to their function or area.
2) Boosting its self-esteem makes keep the status quo
The second reaction, boosting your self-esteem, can also be highly problematic when it comes to tackling disruptive change. Think of a leader who constantly needs to re-affirm his or her self-worth. That person is overly concerned about status. It makes the person risk-averse, clinging to the status quo, or bathing in past glory. Such a leader is very poorly equipped to look into the future, dealing with uncertainty, or be ready to re-define his or her role in a new environment. But sometimes, we need to let go and shift into a lower gear to be ready for new opportunities. A high need to feel good and be valued is in the way of making this transition.
3) Defending our world view stifles creativity
Finally, the third reaction, defending our world view, makes us numb to new impulses and stifles our creativity. We see the implications of this reaction in the U.S. and Germany right now, where polarized groups fight over their views of the pandemic. For one group, the face mask is a symbol of freedom and progress as it allows re-opening shops and restaurants while limiting infections. For the other group, the face mask is a symbol of oppression and dictatorship as it is unnecessary to stop infections and just serves the interests of those in power. But the busier we are convincing others that we have figured it all out, the less we can learn from other perspectives and broaden our horizon, which is necessary to deal with disruptive change.
The busier we are convincing others that we have figured it all out, the less we can learn from other perspectives and broaden our horizon, which is necessary to deal with disruptive change.
So, where do we go from here?
As often, the first step is awareness. We need to be aware of our reactions to be able to change them. We then need to actively work on adopting a new mindset that focuses on the future, curiosity, growth, and an open mind. We need to consciously work against our knee-jerk reactions to the news that limit our possibilities and make us blind to new opportunities.
Big changes start small. So, next time you browse through the news with death rates and pictures of mass graves, sustain from sending emails to close friends, posting new pictures of yourself working out and looking great, and liking every twitter post that confirms your opinions. Instead, make connections to new people in your organization or larger network and see what they have to say. Search for new perspectives and ideas and be inspired by contradicting thoughts and those that challenge your existing knowledge and opinions. Take pride in presenting yourself not in terms of your looks, status, and accomplishments but your entrepreneurial mindset and creative ideas for the future.
Take pride in presenting yourself not in terms of your looks, status, and accomplishments but your entrepreneurial mindset and creative ideas for the future.
That doesn’t mean that you should ignore your anxieties. They are very natural in uncertain times like these. In fact, the more you acknowledge them and share them with others, the less you need to spend all that energy to suppress them and let them dominate your mind and behavior beyond your control.
We do not know what the future will look like for us. But with the right mindset we can do at least our part to shape it in our favor.
Listen to Mathis Schulte in this podcast: