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Are You Paying Attention to What Matters in This Pandemic?

You can defend your company from disastrous leadership decisions by paying attention to what’s important during this pandemic.

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Are you excited about Pfizer and Moderna both applying for emergency authorization for their vaccines from the FDA?

This wonderful news has lifted the stock market, and many companies are moving to eliminate planned budget and staff cuts.

Yet my conversations with a number of C-suite leaders shows that too many are showing excessive enthusiasm over these vaccine news. They forget that the vaccine rollout to the general public is slated for early Spring of 2021.

They’re not facing the full reality of today’s third wave of COVID, which is flooding many hospitals and leaving patients stranded. Governors have launched renewed shutdowns by late November across the US to decrease the strain on the medical system. As a result, the economic situation will not improve, realistically speaking, until late Spring 2021.

Consider what catches and holds your attention whenever you read or watch the news. Most of us tend to be optimistic and focus on the bright side of life.

Sure, we might acknowledge that it’s much wiser to balance optimism and pessimism about the future of the pandemic, given the combination of both good and bad news. Yet it’s hard for us to pay attention to contradictory ideas. Holding such opposing perspectives in our mind causes cognitive dissonance, unless we train ourselves to accept complexity and nuance. Thus, most people prefer to let go of the negative information and focus on the positive, despite the danger to their business, their career, and their health of doing so.

In my conversations with executives, I had to bring a number down to earth to face this unpleasant reality. To do so, I shared the story of a client who paid attention to the wrong things in the early stages of the pandemic; this case study helped convince them

Manufacturing Attention: A Case Study

The story featured James, the COO of a mid-size manufacturing company. Its senior leadership was determined to push through with its product expansion plans even during the onset of the pandemic. When COVID-19 made the news in December, James as well as the company’s CEO and CFO dismissed any thoughts that it could turn into anything serious.

However, as COVID-19 numbers started to climb in the US in early March, James grew concerned and discussed with the other leaders the possibility of postponing their expansion plans. He suggested rerouting their resources towards boosting tech and security to prepare for a possible work from home migration for the company. Then, there was the looming threat of loss of productivity in case of an outbreak and perhaps even a shutdown.

The company had already been testing some equipment to automate more tasks with good results for the past few months, technology that many of their competitors had already secured and implemented in the last couple of years. James urged the CEO to greenlight the purchase of this equipment and its wide-scale implementation, instead of waiting another 12 months, as initially planned. Using this equipment, many fewer workers with a more general skill set would be needed to produce the company’s products.

Unfortunately, the CEO was unconvinced and decided to push through with the expansion plans. Of course, you can already imagine what happened next, given the boom in COVID-19 cases and the wave of restrictions that were soon imposed on the country. James’ company, along with many other companies in the manufacturing industry, was heavily disrupted.

James decided to contact me for a consultation in late May after learning about my work through a webinar I conducted about how organizations can adapt to the changes brought by the pandemic. When he called me, his company was already embroiled in internal team conflicts and its operations had already been severely disrupted. Even after the state allowed reopenings for businesses, many employees either refused or were unable to go to work due to quarantines, greatly slowing production.

Even those who had desk jobs had a lot of difficulties working remotely due to the company’s overall lack of preparation for a work from home setup. The company’s business continuity plan was completely inadequate for such a major disruption.

COVID-19 and the Attentional Bias

When I met with James as well as the company’s CEO and CFO over Zoom, I told them that we need to acknowledge that COVID-19 severely disrupted our world and will not disappear anytime soon. Believing otherwise helped drive many companies deep into chaos because business leaders failed to take the right action at the right time.

The refusal to recognize the gravity of the pandemic and even the act of downplaying it stem from a combination of three factors:

  • The nature of the virus itself
  • The preexisting beliefs and plans of the business leaders
  • The dangerous judgment errors we all tend to make that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists call cognitive biases

The latter mental blindspots stem, in large part, from our evolutionary background. Our gut reactions evolved for the ancestral savanna environment, not the modern world. Yet gurus and business leaders alike overwhelmingly advocate going with our gut and following our intuition in making decisions, instead of using effective decision-making processes.

One of these cognitive biases is the attentional bias, which caused James’ colleagues to decide erroneously at the onset, and amidst, this pandemic.

Attentional bias refers to our tendency to pay attention to information that we find most emotionally engaging, and ignore information that we don’t. Given the intense, in-the-moment nature of threats and opportunities in the ancestral savanna, this bias is understandable. Yet in the modern environment, sometimes information that doesn’t feel emotionally salient is actually the most important data.

You need to pay attention to and accept the current reality of ongoing waves of restrictions as the new abnormal, instead of a temporary emergency. That means fundamentally changing your internal and external business model if you want your organization to survive and thrive during these troubled months.

Steering Back to Efficiency

When I last spoke with James in the end of June 2020, he told me that he, along with the CEO and CFO, decided to meet with all the senior and line managers to assess the most pressing issues in each department and come up with short- and long-term ways to address the pain points.

Next, the CEO held a company-wide virtual town hall meeting to update everyone about what was happening and to present how senior management planned to solve the company’s crisis.

Due to the CEO’s efficient and engaging way of handling the town hall, a lot of pent-up resentment across the company was significantly reduced. This paved the way for better cooperation, which was crucial for the succeeding major steps that James, the CEO, and CFO took — starting with stopping all projects related to the product expansion and shelving it for the next two fiscal years.

Fortunately, only about 30% of the budget resources had been released for the expansion-related projects by the time they first consulted me. As a result, the CEO, CFO, and James were able to make a timely and strategic plan on how they can reallocate the remaining 70%, including:

  • Purchasing and installing the automation equipment
  • Investing into necessary social distancing and hygiene measures at their manufacturing facilities to comply with CDC guidelines
  • Boosting tech, security, and funding for home offices for an efficient work from home transition for all employees who could be moved to telecommuting
  • Providing professional development for their workers, both in working from home collaboration and communication for those who worked from home, and in using the new equipment and CDC guidelines compliance for those who needed to come to work

James told me that he and the leadership team were pleased with the results of the changes they made, especially once the numbers of COVID-19 cases began to increase in mid-June, prompting a pause of the reopening process that eventually led to a cycle of reopening and restrictions.

Conclusion

Remember James’ example and evaluate where you might be paying attention to the wrong data. Step back and acknowledge the complexity and nuance of the situation, despite the challenges of cognitive dissonance. Then, balance accurately both bad and good news to determine your path forward.

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