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Dan Atkinson – The 3 psychological phases of dealing with a crisis

5 July 2020

Dan Atkinson, head of Technical at Paradigm Norton looks at three psychological phases of dealing with a crisis and why we need to be pro-active and plan our transition into a better ‘normal’.

How are you? Zoomed out? Exhausted? Ready for the ‘new normal’ (or just fed up of articles about the ‘new normal’)? I think in the main we have coped really well, but I’d like to get us thinking about where we are at and what happens next.

Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is an executive coach and psychologist specialising in the financial sector. In her article for the Harvard Business Review, If You Feel Like You’re Regressing, You’re Not Alone, she sets out three psychological phases of dealing with a crisis. Do read it – it’s accessible and, like all of their COVID-19 material, free to read. We’ve found this thinking helpful at Paradigm Norton and I hope it helps you as you prepare for the ‘new normal’ (last time I use that phrase in this article – I promise!).

Emergency

For many of us the global pandemic and lockdown were our first experience of working from home for a prolonged period. Combined with market volatility, this meant we needed to adapt and pull together. There was a real urgency and many of you will have seen slow burning projects accelerate. Our biases moved from inaction to action.

Whether you found yourself sharing a dining table with flatmates working from home, or plunged into home schooling, you may have found yourself digging deep for energy. I’m sure Joe Wicks helped! But this pace isn’t sustainable as we move into the second phase.

Regression

I have a feeling that this is where many of us are at. Just like BB King sang: “the thrill is gone”. We start to find ourselves feeling tired, less focused, and less productive. We’ve been running a marathon, but like a sprinter. Concerns about the future (health, freedom, work) that we’ve suppressed will start to come to the fore.

Dr Wedell-Wedellsborg explains that this is a natural response to pressure. It’s one of our mind’s defence mechanisms against confusion and insecurity. We might be experiencing it and so might those who lead our teams. It’s relentless and infectious.

Unfortunately, the regression stage can’t be skipped or avoided. But as anyone who’s had an injection will know, being warned ‘it might hurt a bit’ is helpful (even if it is an understatement).

Are you in regression? How are you and your colleagues doing? Is it resulting in conflict and tempers flaring up out of character? Acknowledge it. Check in with your colleagues and be honest with each other. Even a simple how are you on a scale of 1-10 is helpful. And look to the future – to the recovery which will come. We need to get there together – to misquote Daniel Bedingfield: We’ve “gotta get through this”.

Recovery

This is where we look to the future. We think about our purpose and take control of it. We get ready to rebuild and go beyond just subsisting. It will be different, but how can we make it better. What lessons can we take from the first two steps. Here at Paradigm Norton we ask ourselves our W4 questions:

  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • As a B-Corp, what have we done to embed 3P thinking (People, Planet, Profit)?

Asking these questions will help us see the recovery; planning for it will help us transition into a better normal. Remember, your colleagues might be at a different point in the journey. Be patient and gentle.

Your natural objections or ‘But I don’t have influence’

A natural objection; however, I believe we have more influence than we think. Some of you will own your own business or be an owner through an Employee Owned Trust (or similar). Others will be employees. Regardless, start to think like a business owner and work through your W4. Look at profitability, service, whether things are necessary and what do your clients really want (other than ‘capital growth over the medium to long term in line with their attitude to risk’!).

I’d argue that we all have a responsibility to do this and participate in these discussions. Say what you see. Suggest solutions. Share the ideas you are hearing from your peers.

You might be working for a small company with just a few colleagues. Be solution focused and listen. Recognise the stresses that the owner(s) may be going through. Sensitive proactivity will help you progress your career, demonstrates maturity and builds trust.

In a large firm you might not feel that your voice will be heard or is valuable. So influence where you can. Share with your line manager what you are observing from your perspective. They can collate the battlefield observations and ideas so that senior management are equipped to make decisions. If you don’t tell them they won’t know. Don’t be the frustrated, grumbling employee – work with your management to achieve solutions for all.

Act with integrity. Behave thoughtfully. Care genuinely. Influence, and trust, will follow. Those of you who have integrated yourselves into the community of your company will find that you are far more influential than you think.

Go and share!

Just think how positive it would be if we all did this. If, as a profession, we shared this as best practice. I’d like to challenge you to share your stories with the community. Let me know if you’d like help!

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