Chicken Little Would Not Have Made It as a CEO

There is a lot of worry in the US over the Coronavirus. Both organizations and individuals need to exercise rational thinking, rational planning, and rational communication to weather this storm with a balance of caution and practicality. As of today, there are signs of irrational thinking all around us. Organizational leaders play an important role in keeping that kind of thinking outside its literal or figurative doors. Here are two recommendations for doing this.

The first is that you should already have a crisis management and business continuity plan (that’s one plan) that ensures your organization is prepared for things like weather, fire, power interruptions, natural disasters, terror incidents, and, yes, threats like the Coronavirus. It should spell out what to do and how to operate during incidents of a short- and long-term nature. For example, if there were a fire in an air handler on the roof, and the resulting water damage made your building unusable, would you be up and running in a day? That’s not a far-fetched scenario. Make crisis operations part of your organizational communication cadence, and periodically practice different scenarios. If you don’t already have a plan, you are late. The good news is that creating one does not require much time, and perfection is not a necessity. It can be improved as you go. However, let its design and promulgation reflect smart preparation for any kind of problem—not just another “viral” reaction.

The second organizational theme is that good leaders always communicate well and early. Organizations need to be sensitive to the concerns of employees, but they should not foster or condone irrational behavior or excessive worry. How do you do this? With facts, calm reactions, and planned and consistent messaging. In the paragraphs below you’ll see thoughts I have been sharing with leaders that can be incorporated into messages on sickness policies and operational changes like temporary shifts to remote work. You’ll see that I link the unknown to the known.

There is no vaccine for Coronavirus; however, there is for the flu. For several weeks, I have asked every person who mentioned the Coronavirus if they got a flu shot this season. About 30% in my personal sample (of dozens) say “yes.” The CDC says that nationally fewer than half of us in the US get a flu vaccine each year. But around 56,000 people in the US die each year from the typical flu. Last year it was 80,000. It sometimes surpasses 100,000. Why isn’t anyone panicking about that? I suspect the answer is because it hits every year and we have grown accustomed to these numbers. We have a rational understanding that we are likely to not be affected and that if we are, we probably aren’t going to die. But something like the Coronavirus doesn’t hit every year, so we are prone to overreaction. This reminds me of someone who dutifully uses a seatbelt on an airplane, when odds of survival in an accident must be quite low regardless of seatbelt use, but who doesn’t wear one in a car, when odds of survival in an accident are very high with one. The thinking is just off.

Have you increasingly seen people walking around in masks? I have. That’s despite the fact that the CDC says you should wear a mask only if you are the one sick, to keep others from getting sick. Apparently, masks can actually hold germs and make it easier for you to touch and ingest them. And the only masks that work aren’t readily available. Further, if you did have a good one, apparently it would require being professionally fitted for your face. So why are the shelves empty of just about every kind of mask, effective or not? A lack of facts and irrational thinking. I’m sure the mask manufacturers are appreciative of this behavior, though.

Experts say the best way to avoid getting and/or sharing the virus is to (surprise!) wash your hands, cover your cough, use hand sanitizer, avoid shaking hands, don’t touch your face, and stay home if you are sick. In other words, prevent it like we should be preventing the flu every year. The CDC recommends preparing for the virus as you would other emergencies: planning, communication, and a 3-day supply of food, water, and medicines.

These are examples of the types of facts leaders can use to add context. Communicate early and appropriately. Don’t feed irrational tendencies. Make sure the entire leadership team is in sync and on message. Point to how you handle all types of crises and keep it factual.

The Coronavirus is here. It is highly contagious, so reasonable concern is clearly warranted. The CDC says it will spread. As with the flu each year, some people will not get it. Some will get it and get moderately sick. Some will get severely sick. And, sadly, some—primarily in high-risk categories—could die. Advance planning and good leadership communication will help your organization be prepared and have a level-headed and appropriate response.

The statistics in this blog were taken from the CDC site.


Julie Nielsen is president of Oyster Organizational Development, a firm that helps organizations and individuals be successful through organizational effectiveness strategies and coaching. Julie has over 30 years of experience helping organizations and individuals succeed. 


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