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The uncertainty of the COVID battlefield and how we can win

Michelle Wolter profile picture

By: Michelle Wolter

September 2, 2020

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2020 has proven to be a year that has shaken many beliefs and foundations of our lives. There is rarely a day I don't shake my head in disbelief. Disbelief that this strange existence continues to persist. Disbelief in the dashed hopes I had subconsciously been holding on to; things like school children and college students going back to school, returning to the corporate workplace, and normal resumption of business travel. Disbelief at the continuous personal loss we are all experiencing from the devastating loss of loved ones, loss of key life moments like weddings, funerals, births, and the loss of the small things in life that used to make us feel normal like going to baseball games, concerts, or even church.

My routine has become: wake up, shake my head, straighten my shoulders and dig in. And, some days it is hard to "dig in". I found myself wondering why I could be so resilient one day and in the doldrums another day. The fluctuation of my outlook and temperament was bewildering.

To help put a frame around what I was feeling, I started journaling about what I had experienced since March. Perhaps this story will resonate with you as well.

My COVID Experience:

Early March: "Stage 1: The Big Down Play". Endless news cycles of amped up negativity about the flu. It is the flu, get over it! That lasted about a week. Then I got to eat those words and that attitude.

March 13th: "Stage 2: The Big Bummer". Admitting to myself and the world, holy Hannah this thing is big. This is going to wreak havoc. It's going to tear my personal plans a part. It's going to tear our business plan apart. We had a great year planned. This sucks. This is not fair.

March 16th: "Stage 3: The Pivot Honeymoon". Strap on your superhero capes people it's Hall of Justice time. We're going to take our corporate workforce and send them homeā€¦in a day. Maybe a week. And other countless, crazy initiatives that we did. We just dug deep, got in there, and got it done. It's temporary. I've got this!

Mid-April: "Stage 4: The Isolation". Wait a minute, this is not temporary. What is going on!? I don't like being at home, constantly. When are we going to go back to normal?

Late May / June: "Stage 5: The New Reality". Acceptance that "going back to normal" isn't going to happen soon, and even if we could, would we? Thus, is born the New Reality where we as business leaders and individuals have the choice to become the authors of what comes next. And, what comes next may not be a simple return to "normal" but rather the marriage of the parts of our past we cherish and our new preferences we desire to remain.

Circle flowchart of Michelle's experiences

Am I alone in this?

After reviewing my journal, the next natural question I asked myself was, "am I crazy?" Are other people going through this? To answer this, I turned to science to find a rational explanation that could help me make sense of it all.

What I found is psychologists have spent a great deal of time looking at what's going on in the human experience of 2020 and COVID-19. And, what they have found is an eerie similarity to the grief cycle. Below is a brief diagram of the grief cycle, that I overlaid with my own COVID-19 experience.

The 5 stages of grief

Is it all bad news?

Understanding what we are going through is key to confronting it, and ultimately winning over it. So, no. It is not all bad news. There is a logical explanation to the emotional roller coaster we find ourselves on. Further, it helps us prepare for the next loop that roller coaster may take us on, or those we work with, those we lead, those we love. The COVID cycle of loss will continue, and our response to it will likely follow one or all of these stages. Every uncertainty we face or hope that is not fulfilled can send us or someone in our business or personal lives through this process.

Case in point, the school year. I know for many working parents there was hope the fall would bring some normalcy to their children's lives and to their home and work lives. That hope has largely been dowsed with the reality of many students remaining at home, or in flux between in person and at home. Many parents find themselves helping their college students move in, only to leave with the nagging fear that they will soon return to move them back home. This new loop of uncertainty is testing our perseverance as we process what will happen next for both our children and our ability to maintain our businesses.

How is this good news?

Beating COVID is not just about a vaccine. Beating COVID requires us to win the hearts and minds of our employees and customers alike. And that battlefield is a terribly personal one. It is a battle for their confidence. What will make them confident to work different hours knowing their employer is supporting them? What will make them confident to leave their homes to shop, dine, and travel? What will make them comfortable to send their kids to school? What is right for me will be different than what is right for you. That is simply the truth of it. Savvy leaders will embrace this individual battlefield knowing it starts first and foremost by understanding the individual's heart and mind and what they are experiencing. New Reality leaders will embrace the normalcy of the grief cycle we are living in and help their employees work through how to move forward each time they encounter one.

What to do?

  • Make it personal. We are inviting each other into our homes every day via Zoom or Webex calls. This is a personal time, so make it personal. Invest in knowing how your team is doing in all facets of their life, not just their work activities.
  • Celebrate the wins, they are everywhere. Don't wait for the earnings call, the big deal that closes, the project that completes. Our teammates are winning in every moment leading up to those big celebrations so celebrate the path, not just the finish.
  • Have fun. We are going to be in a different world for a lot longer than we want to. That doesn't mean fun is put on pause. We have to continue to have fun. And we have to have fun at work.

Want to learn more?

Behavioral Economics must reads

  • Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  • Influence: The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Michelle Wolter profile picture Michelle Wolter is a senior leader, owner, and board member of Bailiwick. Michelle has been guiding our clients through the changing and complex world of IT and business leadership for 20+ years. During this COVID-19 era she is helping author Bailiwick's Return to Workplace (RTW) strategy, creating new solutions to help our clients respond to new COVID-19 challenges, and spearheading employee communications to ensure our Bailiwickers are informed and reassured at how we are taking care of them. Outside of Bailiwick she is an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas teaching an MBA course on storytelling in business. She is an avid traveler who is getting her wanderlust through virtual travel these days.

Curiosity and creative problem solving.

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