Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Panic and the coronavirus pandemic: how L&D can coach leaders to think beneath the surface

The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting many new challenges for business leaders on a daily basis. In her first article in a new content series on panic and the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Ellison MBE looks at how can we, as learning professionals, help them to make sense of this uncertain landscape.

19th Mar 2020
Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Team of Politicians, Government Officials, Corporate Business Leaders Have Heated Debate while Standing at the Negotiating Table in the Conference Room
iStock/gorodenkoff

Millions of citizens in countries around the world are now affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. There are deep concerns about health, jobs and the economy. People fear not only the disease, but the fact that it is contagious.  

We are certainly operating in the midst of the unknown. The situation is testing our capacity to stay present in the moment but also, to create appropriate strategies to keep businesses going.

Last week I found the shelves at my local supermarket empty, apart from a light dusting of flour. Is this evidence of a sudden outbreak of home baking? Four big brand chemists had run out of child paracetamol. A run on loo roll offers insight into a grab-and-go approach to the potential threat of falling ill – or, in psychoanalytic terms, the fear of not having enough. On the train, which is normally packed with people travelling armpit to armpit, I now have a choice of four or more empty seats. Not a soul dares cough.

Fear of infection by Covid-19 (so-called because the disease has been identified as the coronavirus, which was first spotted in 2019), has set off a flourish of individual reactions and behaviours. Added to that is a series of organisational or ‘systemic’ responses.

The subconscious at work

Some of the actions of ordinary people – from neighbourly Whatsapp groups offering practical help to the elderly, to young people deciding to eschew meeting up with friends in the pub – may be conscious, sensible and thoughtful. Others – like the pharmacist who told me she has dreams in which she keeps saying: ‘I’m sorry I haven’t got any’, may show us the subconscious busily at work.

Anxiety sometimes expresses itself in surprising ways. Our task – both at work and at home – is to recognise these expressions, especially when they don’t appear obviously linked to what is going on around us.

At an organisational level, managers must attempt to offer calm, containing common sense communications to their employees. Panic is not good for business. Rumour is distracting. A rush on resources can heighten the risks for everyone. So this is, as the Dalai Lama once said about his impatience when it comes to airport check-in queues, “an opportunity to practise”. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s an opportunity to practise navigating ambiguity, uncertainty and vulnerability.

Navigating ambiguity

We are certainly operating in the midst of the unknown. The situation is testing our capacity to stay present in the moment but also, to create appropriate strategies to keep businesses going.

We need to self-manage whilst we lead others. This includes revisiting our personal techniques for navigating stress and exploring our choice of attitude throughout the day. Ditto, deciding where to invest our energy – and where not to.

Maintaining healthy resilience and avoiding burnout is essential when embarking on what we are told is likely to be a marathon. Hence this is a reminder – for coaches and not just their coachees – of the value of good sleep, exercise, sound nutrition and a cheery mindset.

Diversity, but not as we’d assumed

Alongside now familiar reference to psychological wellbeing, is an imperative to genuinely embrace diversity in the workplace. The coronavirus pandemic triggers different responses from different people, for different underlying reasons. Extroverts may find permanently working from home sets off fear of isolation. They’ll miss the energy of ideas that springs like a fountain for them, through social contact. Introverts may find isolation a relief, or even more energising, as they draw their wellbeing from being alone. Open plan working for them can be draining – but this is not always ‘seen’ or appreciated.

Responses to the pandemic are likely to vary according to culture, nationality, tribe and organisational system. Railway engineers may react differently to city traders, teachers, tech-businesses or civil servants. Different is not wrong – so embrace it and encourage yourself to withhold judgement.

A calming note

I’ve just baked my first sourdough bread, from flour that I already had in the cupboard, and not as a result of a personal supermarket sweep! It’s taken 36 hours from removing the starter yeast from the fridge, to lifting a loaf out of the oven. The work involved was just minutes not hours, so no work productivity was lost. I knew was stuck at home anyway.

As I dive in and out of emails and news updates, juggling a diary that is changing by the hour, my sourdough represents a grounding, slow, creativity – a form of physical and psychological nourishing.

Practical coaching questions

Looking at the language of Covid-19

I encourage you to coach with not despite the existential angst. You might like to consider the metaphor of language presented by the pandemic. This is not a gimmick, but a creative way of seeing whether you can help a client generate new thinking that helps them lead better through the current outbreak.

  • Outbreak…examining the words ‘out’ and ‘break’.
  • In what ways do you feel you’d like to ‘break-out’?
  • What’s the sharp spike for the business right now?
  • What is being contained?
  • Where is there currently exposure?
  • What is the business or organisation or department exposed to right now?
  • Where is there delay, that’s positive?
  • Where is there delay, that’s negative?
  • What’s happening locally?
  • What’s happening ‘pan’ or across the whole organisation?
  • In a business context, what is ‘spreading’?
  • What else is ‘transmissible’ human to human? (a thought about emotional transference).
  • What are people in the company currently ‘embracing’?
  • Where is ‘distancing’ felt most?
  • What does ‘isolation’ feel like?
  • Where might leadership ‘shutting down’ or ‘self-isolating’ metaphorically not just in reality?
  • How do the ideas and feelings you’ve expressed fit into themes?
  • How do these map on to individual or local situations?
  • How might they represent a national or global picture?
  • What will you do with this thinking?

Duty of care caveat: This article shares ideas and suggestions but does not represent official advice. Individuals need to make appropriate decisions in relation to their safety, health and psychological wellbeing, according to the latest medical and scientific knowledge in their locale and from government or the NHS.

Rachel Ellison book coverRachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. She was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic. Visit www.rachelellison.com. 

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