România post-pandemică și antidotul digital

Andreea Gorbatai: Lessons from the pandemic: What you give is what you get

It was the early spring of 2020. As covid-19 spread through Europe and the United States, as hospitals filled in many places and worries amplified, the WHO declared the new coronavirus a pandemic. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders cascaded from city to regions to entire countries. Schools closed, and economic activity nearly came to a standstill in Europe and the US. Only “essential workers” left their homes, risking their lives so ours would be spared, or, one hopes, at least easier. 

Many companies that have been planning, to various degrees, a “digital transformation” strategy over a 5-10 year time horizon were forced to “flip the switch” overnight. Many office workers had a day, or two, or maybe even a few hours’ notice to pick up their office materials, and work remotely. “For two weeks,” some orders said. “For a month,” others anticipated. “Until further notice,” announced the more cautious ones. Nearly three months later, we’re seeing some glimpses of our prior normalcy starting to return. Some terraces, shops, and, in some places, even restaurants are reopening with various rules and restrictions in place with regards to masks, testing, and social distancing. The wheels of social interaction and economic exchange are rustily, hesitatingly, prudently getting in motion.

As a sociologist and management professor I wondered: what have we learnt from the lockdown, and what are some ways in which it has irrevocably changed us?

One of the refrains that became quickly obvious during the “lockdown” world is how tightly interconnected we are. How we are as strong as our weakest link. In countries that engaged in diligent contact tracing, such as South Korea, it quickly became apparent how one person disobeying the virus containment policy could quickly trigger a massive infection chain; in countries where minorities or immigrant lives in marginalized, overcrowded neighborhoods, tightly packed in small houses, these populations were disproportionately affected by the virus, and it was easy to think it was “them” not “us.” 

Yet at the same time, many of these people who are poor, crowded in, unable to isolate when they feel sick, and – in some countries such as the United States – unable to benefit from sick days, or unable to afford hospital visits – are the same people who pack our groceries, drive our cabs and buses, care for our sick or elderly, and deliver our foods. They are some of the essential workers we have been relying upon in order to stay safe in our homes, and they have been dying from illness for our safety and comfort – and sometimes may have unwittingly furthered the spread of illness too. 

In this way, it is now, during the pandemic, painfully visible that a society that cannot protect us all, that cannot offer its citizens fairness and safety, is a society that is, quite literally and measurably, “ill.” It is a society where an illness such as covid can rampantly spread – but it is also metaphorically “ill” as it fails to treat people with respect for the dignity of human life.

The second pattern that quickly emerged during the pandemic is the extent to which high-quality leadership, clear communication, trustworthiness, and trust in science can trigger positive or negative chain reaction at societal level. Several countries – such as New Zealand, Germany, Finland – have quickly outlined response strategies to the pandemic, and implemented compassionate and effective economic responses to alleviate the harm of economic shutdown. Some leaders such have communicated transparently and empathetically the severity of the situation, the scientific possibilities of the crisis, and the economic measures adopted in response and were met with a concerted response by their citizens. In contrast, other leaders have shifted between denial, muddled, unscientific and fearful responses, and silence – inducing high levels of anxiety and confusion in the population, and triggering contradictory and partially enforced responses among their citizens and ever increasing rates of illness. Lack of clear, honest, informed, empathetic leadership represents another component of the quantifiable illness spreading – both in medical, and in a socio-economic sense.

And this brings me to my last point. In my teaching, I often refer to one particular framework when we examine organizational problems. It is referred to as the Congruence Framework. Simply put, if we start with a long term plan, a strategy if you will, and a leadership team, we need four elements of an organization to be aligned in order to execute the strategy: the people, the structure, the tasks to be done, and the organizational culture. Whenever there is disconnect between these four elements, or between the organization and the leadership, or the strategy, the organization will suffer. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the resulting economic crisis represent, in a very concrete and quantifiable manner, a test of organizational resilience. Can we – as a society or government, a hospital, a school, a corporation – adapt and get the work done, if the organizational context – the world – changed overnight? Does everyone in the organization know what our priorities are, and is everyone motivated to get their work done, to the best of their abilities and possibilities, in this new scenario?  

Failing leaders are quick to point fingers: “We don’t have the right culture! We don’t have the right people!” But very often, if one is to look deep down and face the roots of the problem, the issue lies in the interconnections between these elements, rather than within the elements themselves. For example, it might not be that people are not collaborative: it might be that an organization is not rewarding employees for helping each other, or that it is rewarding or promoting people by comparing their work results to each other. It might be that an organization is set on an innovating strategy, while it has very strict budgeting rules and short term goals that inhibit, or even punish, the calculated risk-taking and even failure that are inherent in innovation.

To such leaders, I have said: “ask yourselves, ‘why is this happening?’ and ask ‘why?’ and   ‘why?’ and ‘why?’ again, at least five times, dig into the problem, until the answer starts getting uncomfortable, and often you will see a solution starts growing from the deep roots of this problem …”  And I think that this pandemic is the time for many to ask themselves these questions. 

The slowly returning post-pandemic world is a world of lingering fears and uncertainty, high unemployment, and extreme mental stress. Why are people not rushing to buy your product? Why are your employees not putting in 110% in their work, why are you sending so many emails and calling so many meetings, why are your employees confused, frustrated, or stressed?

As part of the hand-waving that comes with fears of seeing the incongruence in an organization or social system, people will say, “It’s the culture. I’m not the one breaking the rules but other people are. There’s no hope. Things will always be like this, unless I jail / fine / fire / punish people,” [depending on organization, of course] But the answer is simple. The culture of your team, of your organization, of your family, of your country comes from what you do. Especially when you are a manager, a leader, a parent – people look at you to know how to respond. It is NOT what your mission statement or that long-term strategy states; it is what you do most often, what you put on your agenda, what you ask people about. It is what you measure, what you reward, what you prioritize, and what you punish or sanction. Ever more so, in a digital world where everything is recorded, where so much is visible, traces of our actions remain, undeniably visible to anyone who knows where to look. 

Humans are social animals. Some days this saves us – from bad decisions, from dangerous predators – but other days this can be our downfall. If our leaders are not clear, empathetic, consistent; if we don’t reflect on what matters to us, what will lead our society or organization to fair and successful outcomes, and come out, ahead of the pack, to lead by example, not only in what they say, but in what they do – as politicians, managers, teachers, neighbors, or parents, then we will be drowning in a cacophony of voices and actions, in a society and an organization that breaks down in a flood of zoom calls, posts, emails, and voices never heard. 

So, what is the takeaway I want to leave you with? An organization, of any kind, is strong when it is aligned: when its leaders are committed to a strategy, that is translated into tasks to be done, and when the organizational structure, culture, and people are positively contributing to getting the tasks done. When the organizational culture is strong, such that people know what are the most important values, what the priorities are, and they know there are consequences for disregarding this order. So, sit down with yourselves and reflect on where, and why your society, your organization, your social group is failing. Ask yourself what the problem is (valuing different things – job security versus patient safety versus profits, often in explicit terms, in what we are measuring and rewarding in our world? Increasing illness rates? Too many emails and online meetings and too little work getting done?), and ask yourself why this is happening until you understand. Until you understand how everything is interconnected, where the pain is coming from, and the extent you can alleviate it as a leader, manager, teacher, or parent. Until you understand that we are all interconnected, until you find (or become?) the leaders you can trust, until you understand that science is looking for the answer but it might not have the answers at this time. One person can (only) do so much.

Scurtă biografie: Andreea Gorbatai is a professor of Management of Organizations at the Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley. For the past 8 years, she has been teaching Leadership and Organizational Change to undergraduates, MBAs, and executives, and conducting research on new forms of organizations and organizing such as online platforms for collaboration, knowledge management, and crowdfunding, and their impact on gender and racial bias and discrimination. In additional research, she has explored the importance of emotions and collective events for the creation and maintenance of a shared collective identity. Prior to UC Berkeley, Professor Gorbatai graduated from Harvard Business School with a doctorate in Organizational Behavior, Harvard University with a masters in Sociology, and Dartmouth College with a double-major in Economics and Sociology.

Acest articol face parte din proiectul “România post-pandemică și antidotul digital”, o inițiativă a Fundației C.A.E.S.A.R.

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