Regaining a Sense of Power in the Face of Pandemic Powerlessness: Workplace Leadership

Regaining a Sense of Power in the Face of Pandemic Powerlessness: Workplace Leadership

By Bob VandePol, MSW

Young black professional man looking out office building windowThe thought of a potentially lethal microscopic virus covering the globe produces a sense of powerlessness that can be terrifying. Feeling powerless is as frightening as the threat itself. The childhood nightmare we all dreaded most was the one where the Boogie Man chased us and our feet got caught in quicksand. Right?!

When “under the influence” of fear, humans typically react with the familiar Fight-Flight-Freeze Response.

Understanding the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

Consider these responses within the Animal Kingdom in response to safety risks: Tigers Fight. Deer take Flight. Snowshoe rabbits Freeze.

Multiple chemical and neuro-psychological adjustments quickly equip enhanced capabilities to address the present threat. Whereas these responses can have short-term survival value in the midst of a sudden-impact crisis or a battle field, they often do not translate well to more typical work or community environments.

For example, a night spent sleeping “with one eye open” is much more valuable when in a combat zone than prior to an 8 a.m. budget meeting. This is especially true during a pandemic because:

  1. The threat is invisible and
  2. The threat is ongoing.

This is a marathon; not a sprint. Working through it healthily requires different workplace leadership strategies.

Consider the Fight-Flight-Freeze reactions in terms of their potential impacts upon productivity in the workplace:

Fight

Amidst a perceived threat, people immediately attempt to make sense of the incident to gain some sense of control over it. Unfortunately, when we are afraid, these decisions tend to be impulsive, emotionally extreme, and self-protective. Conditions are ripe for hostility and blame and the resultant allegations need not be accurate to be powerful. People often become more sarcastic, offensive, and defensive. This condition leads to divisiveness and polarization.

  • As people revert to primal defenses, risk of suicide and violence increase.
  • Self-blame and other-directed blame impair relationships, productivity, team work, and morale.
  • Frustration directed at or witnessed by those nearby damages the organization’s mission and reputation.
  • Vengeful litigation and disparagement increase in likelihood.

Flight

Characteristic of high stress is avoidance behavior. This avoidance can take the forms of absenteeism, denial of the severity of the situation even in light of evidence to the contrary, or avoidance via alcohol or drugs. As people feel overwhelmed by one threat they may seek to avoid other work-related challenges that are difficult and unfamiliar. Normally tedious tasks now feel insurmountable and just don’t get done. Some withdraw from others because of the fear that conversations with them will produce emotional vulnerability.

  • Absenteeism, especially when unplanned, increases replacement costs and slows productivity targeted at deadlines.
  • Attrition increases replacement and training costs plus leads to loss of intellectual and relational capital.
  • Distancing inhibits mission-critical relationships, team work, and the exchange of necessary communication.

Freeze

In the midst of and following highly stressful events, people often report feeling numbly immobilized. For a period of time, many experience difficulty thinking abstractly, focusing, and multi-tasking. Some express this reaction as a desire to “remain invisible”.

  • Excessive “hunkering down” produces ineffective, indecisive results.
  • Extended inaction results in the increased likelihood of the member never returning to rejoin your group. For employees, this increases the likelihood of expensive Workers Comp and Disability claims.

Effective crisis leadership includes emphasis upon transition to a future focus and next steps. Response that compassionately acknowledges the impact of the incident and communicates pertinent information is foundational but not enough.

People derive a healthy sense of order and efficacy when gently but decisively steered away from reactive decisions toward routine, concrete, productive tasks. Doing so communicates an expectation of recovery that empowers and is likely to be internalized by them.

Again, powerlessness is terrifying. Leaders do well to focus people away from powerlessness toward what they do have control over. Healthy, life-giving control mitigates anxiety and allows natural resilience to occur. Inertia shifts into momentum. These tasks may need to be temporarily adapted but serve to promptly restore an increased sense of safety.

“If you fall off of a horse….get back on a pony as soon as possible.”


Bob VandePol, MSW serves as Executive Director for the Pine Rest Employee and Church Assistance Programs which provides Critical Incident Response services to business, organizations, schools and universities as well as faith communities.

Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7549 or bob.vandepol@pinerest.org

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