As psychologist Stephen Pinker stated recently. “If we are wise, [after this] we will deal better with our networks, through our collaboration and connections…but there’s a massive tendency to slip back into life as normal”. The power of the past and our need to feel safe and in control, exert a powerful gravitatonal pull back to old habits.
There are several forces at play here. Daniel Goleman, best known for his concept of Emotional Intelligence, explains how our instinctive responses allow us to react quickly to life-threatening situations, Complex threats however, may not always be met with the most adaptive response. Essentially, our emotional brain overrides our rational brain. Further, as Pinker puts it, “human intuition is driven by narrative and anecdote, not by statistics”. Those of us that have experienced the virus close at hand are likely to view the danger very differently from those that have only seen it from a distance. One visible patient, whether a friend or a Prime Minister, commands our attention more than thousands of care home residents and carers (whom even statisticians have struggled to give sufficient prominence).
Another Daniel, Kahneman this time, describes two systems of thinking. Fast Thinking is driven by our senses and emotions. In contrast, Slow Thinking allows considered choice, but requires conscious effort. Malcolm Gladwell (in a book that inspired the title of this article) also writes very accessibly about the power of these two systems. Both authors agree that, in times of stress and risk, Fast Thinking can dominate, drowning the more thoughtful voice that struggles to be heard. A balance is optimal, but not always achieved.
Leaders that attempt to change the culture of their organisations undoubtedly recognise these forces. Peter Drucker memorably expressed this as “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. While leaders seek to implement their vision, the invisible threads of habit overpower their efforts.
So, what do these well-respected sources have to tell us about our current gradual emergence from lockdown? When asked how much this pandemic will change us, Pinker replied” “I think we overestimate how much it will change the world. People sadly have short memories. All the rest of life will continue to function as it has before.” For some this may be reassuring. Knowing that we will heal with just a barely visible scar. But that could also mean a failure to notice and benefit from a significant number of elements that have, for a short time, been thrown into sharp relief.
When stepping away from the negative emotions we may have experienced, we risk also losing the sense of community and compassion that many have felt over the last few months. How ironic that it has taken social distancing to bring us closer to our neighbours. Some commentators are already talking about the long-term impact that this period will have on huge proportions of the population, as a consequence of psychological, personal and financial disruption. The compassion that we have demonstrated during the pandemic is likely to be needed way past its statistical peak. Will we be able to sustain this when our instinct is to return as rapidly as possible to our well-rehearsed ways? How compassionate will each of us be when schools, shops and workplaces all struggle to learn new, but potentially temporary, ways of operating?
Perhaps most importantly, everyone’s experience has been uniquely different. Psychology again can sound some warning bells here. Mental shortcuts (or heuristics as they are known) kick in to help us deal with the overwhelming data that we would otherwise need to process. We too easily stereotype and generalise without taking the time to understand the complex context in which someone else is operating. We can make poor decisions when we are drawing (essentially jumping to) conclusions in such a changing landscape.
And finally, perhaps it is time to embrace just one metaphor. The phrase Silver Lining has been with us for nearly 400 years (credited to John Milton who wrote “Was I deceived? Or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”). As we anticipate the unseemly haste back to old habits, there is just now a small but opportune window for us all to reflect upon what we have learned. In coaching, team and senior leader conversations, a number of important themes are beginning to coalesce. The notion of a learning organisation (coined by Peter Senge) is not new – but it might never have been so relevant.
Just now there does appear to be an appetite to reflect upon what we have recently learned. To capture the inventiveness, resilience, and compassion that have been born through necessity. And there are some gems here. Some new ways of working, thinking and ‘being’ that we may sorely miss (should our distorted memories allow). We would all do well to mine these gems now before the seam closes up.
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