What Human Frailties Does COVID Expose?

I’m a fan of Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s top doctor. I admire her leadership skills, her amazing empathy and her unrelenting belief that if people are given the right information and it is adequately explained to them, they will do the right thing.

She delivers a regular message on the status of COVID-19 in the province, and I am struck by the types of media questions that are being asked of her and the human ‘frailties’ the questions reveal in terms of how people respond to a virus we knew nothing about when the pandemic was announced in March, and that we are forced to learn about ‘on the run’.

COVID-19 is an extreme example of a shocking unpredicted body blow that every element of our society is absorbing in various ways with various outcomes.

Some organizations are morphing how they do business to conform to the new physical distancing rules, school systems are reinventing themselves to employ both in-class and virtual teaching and individuals are having to adjust their personal lives to keep themselves and everyone around them safe in the ‘new normal’.

While organizations are pivoting to conduct themselves differently in the COVID world, individuals seem to be having a more difficult time adjusting; they are struggling to adapt with the pandemic reality and the personal changes that it demands.

They are exposing some fundamental human frailties that in normal times pose a challenge for change leaders in organizations wanting to change their strategic direction and pursue a different course. But in COVID times, these frailties, by my observation, are accentuated, thus imposing an even greater challenge.

I’ve observed 5 COVID-induced frailties that must be addressed by individuals and leaders now more than ever.

People need to be told what to do

In every private, public or political organization, there is a role for a directive style of leadership. For example, effective leaders, albeit with employee input, decide on the strategic game plan of the organization; it’s not created by consensus. And when it’s hit with a competitive assault, the leader makes the call on what response best serves all stakeholders.

Ironically, in uncertain and stressful COVID times, people want more direction in their lives not less. Dr Bonnie doesn’t provide public orders for every sector, nor does she provide specific rules for every personal and family situation.

Dr B provides general guidelines which she expects every person to apply to their own circumstance. She does not tell people what specifically to do.

People are having trouble with this approach. They want to be told what to do. They are willing to have less say in the practices and rules that are required to stem the transmission of the virus and demand more command-type direction from leadership even though leadership is in a similar position of not completely understanding the correct action to take. They are ok with giving up their rights to control their own personal outcome.

The frailty revealed — people don’t want to think for themselves in trying times; rather they are willing to put their trust in someone who, by virtue of the leadership position they hold, is perceived to have the all right answers.

This ‘delegation up’ mentality in times of uncertainty and stress is troublesome as it’s essentially an abdication of one’s responsibility to take as much ownership of issues affecting them as they can.

Leaders need to engage people now more than ever on the issues and encourage them to take control of their lives. Yes, provide the direction needed but encourage individuals to be more active in and expressive of their own needs in the decision making process.

People have difficulty dealing with vagueness

My observation is that most people struggle with translating concepts and principles into personal action; they’re not totally comfortable with thinking holistically and deriving what they specifically should do to support the general thought and direction given.

For example, people have trouble grasping what physical distancing means in a variety of settings where the number of people allowed is a function of the size of the space available.

For example, when Dr Bonnie says you can have a maximum of 50 people at a gathering except in a 500 square foot condo it has to be a fewer number, I can see people throw up their hands and say “Is it 50 or not? Make up your mind!” And they’re surprised when they get hit with a $2,000 fine for having a party with an elbow-to-elbow crowd.

“Viruses don’t pay attention to our wishes” — The Honorable Adrian Dix, BC Health Minister

The world is not precise and this virus certainly doesn’t follow any formula. We MUST get used to living and making decisions based on a general understanding of the issues and trying many things to see what works and what doesn’t.

The frailty revealed — people expect solid lines when there are none. They expect clear focus when it’s impossible. All of us must get used to living with moments of discomfort and determining the appropriate way forward with just a minimal amount of concrete facts.

In this type of environment, planning on the run is the only practical way of dealing with the imprecision that uncertainty brings.

People don’t like leaders changing their minds

Leaders declare a course of action based on the best information they have at the time; experience yields things that work well and things that don’t. And based on the results and learnings achieved, leaders pivot on their original plan and advocate a change in direction.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Dr Bonnie suggested that people should keep a minimum physical distance of 3 meters (6 feet) between themselves in order to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus; this was the medical opinion at the time.

As time marched on and more was learned about how COVID was transmitted in various environments, Dr Bonnie described circumstances where a 1 meter physical separation was ‘probably safe’. Of course the other factor considered in the physical distancing issue was the need to get our kids back to school with a hybrid learning model and new school room topologies.

People are frustrated over this apparent change of position. They see this as a lack of leadership competence and shout out “Why couldn’t you get it right the first time?”.

The frailty revealed — people expect leaders to declare a plan and stick to it. It takes most of us time to understand and support why we are going in a certain direction, and when that direction is changed we lose our anchor and have to go through the process of understanding and taking action on a new direction all over again.

The challenge is for people to accept that we live in a world of relentless and unpredictable change and that if we don’t move with it, we’re done.

People like ‘the stick’ better than ‘the carrot’

It’s not unusual in a Dr Bonnie update to hear some media person ask the question “Do you think we need to take tougher measures with people who are violating the rules rather than continuing with the current gentle approach of encouraging them to change?”

Dr Bonnie believes that people want to do the right thing and that what is needed is to provide the right information to the public and encourage the behaviour needed to reduce the transmission of the virus.

‘Be kind, be gentle and be safe’ is her mantra and it drives her decision-making in public health matters.

The frailty revealed — people believe that noncompliance should be dealt with by imposing punitive measures rather than trying to achieve the desired outcome by changing behaviour. For the leader in chaotic times this frailty demands a balance of behaviour-changing and enforcement actions.

People like to manipulate to justify their own behaviour

Most of us don’t like change. Period. It’s unsettling, risky and downright uncomfortable. And when we find ourselves thrust in a new environment our first impulse is to hold on to our old ways rather than willingly move to a different paradigm.

Dr Bonnie’s direction, when the number of infections is on the rise, is that we adopt a ‘same six’ approach to govern our social interactions. It’s pretty straightforward: try and engage only with the same six people in your bubble; the risk for transmitting the virus increases as you interact with different people.

The actual behaviour exhibited by people, however, tends to be mixed with some believing they need only keep their circle to six friends and relatives while others understand they need to pull back and only engage with the same six people.

Those in the non-change group (incorrectly) interpret the rule to mean that it’s ok to engage with six different people everyday because it serves their past social norm which they steadfastly want to hold on to.

The frailty revealed — people tend to be selective in what they hear in the rules they are asked to follow. They pick and choose those parts that fit their past behaviour pattern and practise them; they ignore the personal change implications that the new rule requires.

For the leader, this is a major issue if real change is required. They must anticipate that this frailty will be revealed and have a plan to deal with it. This often requires communicating in excruciating detail exactly what the new rule means and what it doesn’t mean; painting a picture for people to reduce the amount of ‘wiggle room’ they have to avoid making the changes necessary.

Human idiosyncrasies have always existed; they have always challenged any change movement whether it involves an organization changing its strategic direction or an individual making a new career choice.

COVID has magnified the whole adaptive process for us all, however, and we must find a way within ourselves to move to our new world if we are ever to see the light at the end…

Related: How to Avoid Being a One-Sale Wonder