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Gleb Tsipursky

Management

The Trap of Getting Back to Normal During the Pandemic

Believing things will normalize soon, many companies are unprepared for new waves of restrictions

Published: Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 12:03

As a vast number of companies rush to reopen, they’re falling into the trap of “getting back to normal.” They don’t realize that we’re heading into a period of waves of restrictions, due to many states reopening too soon. Indeed, some of the states that opened early have already reimposed some restrictions.

As I predicted back at the start of the pandemic, we will be facing recurring restrictions and shutdowns, and need to focus much more on virtual interactions. To survive and thrive in this new abnormal, and avoid the trap of normalcy, leaders need to understand the parallels between what’s going on now and what happened at the start of the pandemic.

Reality check in a tech company

Consider Jeff, the chief risk officer of a 400-person manufacturing company based in Texas. Unfortunately, the company’s leadership team, including Tim, believed Elon Musk’s statements in news articles when he downplayed the coronavirus in March 2020.

Because those in the C-suite thought the pandemic wasn't a big deal and would blow over soon, they didn’t take the necessary precautions and preparations, and ended up in a bad place when the shutdowns occurred. They had to turn to their very basic business-continuity plan that did not factor in something as large scale as a pandemic. Thinking that the situation would “normalize” soon, they held off on making major decisions, such as moving all their operations to a virtual setup.

Jeff decided to contact me for a consultation after learning about my work through a recent article I published in Quality Digest about how companies can adapt to the changes brought by the pandemic. When he called me, his company was already embroiled in internal team conflicts, which resulted in a number of clients having their orders delayed, and a couple of major clients even threatening to cancel. It was evident that the company needed help getting out of murky waters—and soon.

Facing this new abnormal

When I met with Jeff, as well as the company’s CEO and COO by video conference, I told them that there were some essential points that they needed to understand in order for their company to survive in this new Covid-19 reality.

First and foremost, we won’t get anywhere if we don’t face the facts. We need to acknowledge that Covid-19 fundamentally disrupted our world, turning it upside down in a few short weeks in February and March 2020. Regrettably, it will not disappear soon; believing that it will is what got us mired in this mess, making the U.S. outbreak the sixth worst in the world in terms of the number of deaths per capita.

You might be wondering why Elon Musk—and even some political leaders—downplayed the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s not like doing so had personal benefits for these leaders. On the contrary, their comments hurt their credibility.

Like Jeff and the other leaders of that company, these globally renowned leaders fell into what cognitive neuroscientists call the normalcy bias. This dangerous judgment error refers to the fact that our gut reactions drive us to feel that the future, at least in the short and medium term of the next couple of years, will function in roughly the same way as the past: normally. As a result, we tend to vastly underestimate both the possibility and impact of a disaster striking us.

The normalcy bias is one of more than 100 mental blind spots that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists like myself call cognitive biases. Fortunately, recent research has shown us how we can effectively deal with such dangerous judgment errors.

It’s critical to understand the dangers of falling into the normalcy bias, and to acknowledge the pain you cause yourself and your company by doing so. Then, you need to realistically consider the long-term outcomes, and plan for a realistic scenario that addresses the likelihood of major disruptions.

It was pretty clear even from my first Zoom call with Jeff and the CEO and COO of the company that their leadership team had suffered from the normalcy bias. However, it took until the second consultation call for them to admit (more than a bit grudgingly) that they had succumbed to this mental blind spot. This refusal to admit to reality had less to do with the veracity of the facts I presented to them than it did to their initial unwillingness to let go of their “gut feel.”

After discussing the above points with them, they admitted that it was time to face what lies ahead. It was time to prepare their company for a much bigger disruption than they anticipated. We used the “Defend Your Future” technique to help them plan for a variety of potential futures. We decided that while they would hope for the best, they would plan for the worst, a wise strategy for addressing the normalcy bias.

No longer struggling, but thriving

When I last spoke with Jeff at the end of June 2020, he told me that he, along with the CEO and COO, had decided to share their findings and the points we discussed during the coaching sessions with the rest of the leadership team. It was a difficult conversation, due to the growing conflicts in the company and mutual recrimination.

However, after realizing that there wasn’t much sense playing the blame game given the urgency of the situation, the C-suite decided to buckle down and address the problems head on. After outlining the problems and potential solutions, they eventually got widespread buy-in to do what needed to be done in order to propel their company onto recovery.

The leadership team swiftly addressed the internal conflicts, which was the necessary first step to addressing all the other issues.

They focused much more effort on a long-term transition to virtual work for their office workers. The COO led the effort to minimize their physical footprint, leaving only a couple of people in the office to take care of necessary paperwork. Tim, the CEO, and the vice president of IT made quick, effective changes to the company’s policies and processes so that operations would be in line with the transition to virtual work.

They also went above and beyond the CDC guidelines in adapting their factory to social distancing and extensive hygienic cleaning. It cost them in terms of productivity, but it greatly helped improve morale among the workforce.

After the internal conflicts and systems had been addressed, the leadership team focused on reaching out to the clients who were threatening to cancel due to order delays. Because of these efforts, most of the cancellations were averted, although two smaller clients did cancel.

Jeff told me that he and the leadership team were pleased with the results of the changes. They were especially glad once the numbers of Covid-19 cases in Texas increased in mid-June, prompting a pause of the reopening process that eventually led to shutdowns again in late June.

Conclusion

During these disruptive times of the pandemic, it’s important to be agile and resilient. Keep in mind that even if your company was not able to make the best decisions at the onset of the pandemic, you can still steer it back to the right path by fighting and protecting against the trap of the normalcy bias. 

For more on this topic, register for the July 14, 2020, webinar, “Covid-19 Adaptation and Planning Via Neuroscience for Quality Professionals.” The webinar starts at 11 a.m. Pacific.  

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About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect quality leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019). His expertise comes from 20+ years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.