There’s a Reason They Can’t Get COVID-19 Out of Their Head

Many years ago, when I was working in the UK, I went to Paris for a short weekend trip, and lined up at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. Millions of people have done it over the years (and most of them seemed to be there the day I went, but that’s another story!).

But is it true I saw the same painting as everybody else? No! In fact, we all saw a completely different piece of art.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting any sort of conspiracy theory where the real Mona Lisa has been stolen and replaced with a fake!

I’m saying we like to think we see things objectively, but we don’t. It’s all made up!

We never experience reality!

We never experience reality, only what our thinking makes up about reality.

Like applying a set of Instagram filters to a photo, we distort reality by applying our own filters to it: the (imperfect) input from our five senses, what we keep or discard, how that matches familiar patterns from the past, and how it fits our beliefs and values. It all happens in an instant, and we then choose how to respond.

I saw, experienced, stored, and remember a very different Mona Lisa from, say, a Parisian, an artist, an art student, and everybody else in the world.

Keep this in mind when leading in a crisis.

We always do this, but even more so when we’re going through difficult and challenging times – as many of your team members might be doing right now.

You might hear people saying, ‘We’re all in the same boat’. But that’s not true. We’re all in the same storm, but each in our own boat, navigating through the storm. COVID-19 has created a triple threat: a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a social crisis. We’re all affected differently, and unless you’re sure you know somebody’s circumstances well, you don’t know the boat they have at their disposal.

For example, a few weeks ago, in an online presentation (while most of Australia was struggling with a COVID-19 lockdown), I asked attendees to tell me how they felt at the time. I then put their answers together into this word cloud:

It’s nice to see some positivity and optimism, but there are also people who are ‘languishing’, ‘isolated’, and ‘ok…ish’. Don’t assume everybody is feeling the same way – especially if you’re upbeat, positive, and optimistic.

Don’t judge!

In ‘normal’ circumstances, it’s easier to understand somebody’s behaviour because we judge it by generally accepted standards. We know broadly what’s right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, and appropriate or inappropriate. But when we go through massive change, we don’t have those external standards to guide us. It’s too easy to judge people by our standards without knowing anything about them.

It’s easy to dismiss or diminish somebody’s feelings, and you might be tempted to say things like:

  • ‘This too shall pass’
  • ‘Someday we’ll look back and laugh’
  • ‘It could be worse’
  • ‘Other people are struggling more’

Those things might be true, but they are not helpful right now! They don’t address their feelings, and those feelings are reality for them, even if it’s a filtered version of reality.

Be an avocado leader.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating …

In June last year, Macquarie Business School and We Are Unity surveyed senior leaders in Australia and identified which leaders were doing the best in handling the pandemic. They coined the phrase ‘avocado leader’ to describe a new leadership style for successfully navigating through crisis.

Like an avocado, this kind of leader has both a hard inner core (the commercial focus on business outcomes) and a soft outer layer (the empathetic people skills).

Of course, the best leaders have always been avocado leaders – because they know people drive performance and profits, so they look after their people.

This is even more important in a crisis. If people in your team, family, or community are struggling, now is the time to ‘dial up’ that soft outer layer of your avocado leadership.

Plan from the head and lead from the heart.


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