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The response to Italy’s first round of COVID-19 restrictions issued in the north was exactly what should have been expected. After a presumed period of shock, denial and anger, many residents began bargaining―the “you should make an exception for me because . . . ” stage. Many continued going about their daily lives. The virus continued to spread.
Italy’s subsequent nationwide restriction on movement and closure of nonessential businesses seems to have gotten a better hearing. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte asked Italians to join him in an “I Stay Home” pledge. He urged citizens to make a common sacrifice to protect the elderly and avoid overwhelming the health system. His messages were full of empathy and clear facts, painting a picture of why this was necessary. Conte’s approach helped his people move quickly through their resistance, accept the change and stay home.
As governments, institutions and businesses alike scramble to cope with a highly uncertain and rapidly evolving landscape, it’s important to remember the lesson of Italy: In times of heightened anxiety and stress, we must change the way we lead.
In these times, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, the amygdala, hijacks the cognitive system that analyzes and interprets behavior, resulting in panic and a protective state of mind. Left unchecked, this instinct can have a severe impact on job performance, compromising safety, quality and productivity. And it can lead to dysfunction as well, triggering issues like absenteeism, attrition and even violence.
Those leading the community response to the coronavirus crisis must help their people move through this predictable reaction. The right engagement tactics can do wonders to shorten the duration and amplitude of the disruption, while giving people a bit of indirect control over the situation.
A practical way to approach this is to think through three fundamental questions and answers.
1. During a crisis, what do people hear?
Mental noise in high-stress situations reduces the ability to process information by 80%, on average. Under stress, people have difficulty hearing, understanding and recalling information. Data shows that attention spans shrink to just 12 minutes or less, and people are only able to retain three main ideas.
Keep messages concise and clear. Also think about using graphics, visual aids, analogies and personal stories, all of which can improve processing by more than 50%.
2. How do you best reach them?
Under stress, people react more favorably to trusted messengers or individuals they know and respect. Consider who will be most affected by the crisis and who has the greatest influence on those people. In a corporate environment, an employee’s direct supervisor is typically in the best position to communicate messages and motivate the right behaviors.
Who delivers the message matters, but so does the way it’s delivered. People need to know that you truly care about them before they start to care about what you know. It is critical during times of crisis to begin every communication with empathy. A simple opening such as “I know the current situation has been very challenging, and we appreciate the toll it is taking on everyone” helps diffuse anxiety and get people ready to listen to the facts that come next.
3. How will they respond?
Understand that pushback―or resistance, as we like to call it―is inevitable with any type of major change. That’s the lesson of Italy’s experience. It is a natural reaction to feeling a loss of control. It’s counterintuitive, but leaders should expect and embrace resistance when it emerges. The right leadership reaction to resistance is to listen with empathy. Only then can you remind people why things need to change and begin to discuss how to make the change happen.
In crisis situations, especially those as fluid as the coronavirus outbreak, many leaders are naturally drawn to a more protective, or fixed, mindset and behaviors. This can include defensiveness, denial, intransience in the face of changing facts on the ground and even blaming others.
A learning mindset will serve you better. Adapt to what is needed and be willing to adjust the game plan as new facts emerge. Address the challenge with openness and optimism, conveying empathy for how people may feel. It’s not only what you do that matters. How you do it is just as relevant, and in times of crisis, even more important to get right.