Think back a few weeks ago to mid-March, when businesses started shutting down and struggling with the idea of limited or no cash flow.  Governments started advising or imposing social distancing.  The news media turned all COVID, all the time.

At first, how long did it feel like the crisis would last?  Two to four weeks?  Businesses are now planning to be closed or scaled back to mid or late June – more than three times longer than experts initially hoped.  But even this time frame is based on modeling that, so far, hasn’t proven very good at predicting.

In the face of such fundamental uncertainty, anxiety and stress, how can management teams function day to day and make decisions?  More often than not, they don’t.  Instead, they simply freeze.  And that leads to significant trouble for the business.

We all know about our automatic Fight or Flight response to stress and danger.  But we forget about the other option, which is Freeze.  If there is no chance of survival if we fight or run, human instinct is to automatically freeze.

Businesses are run by humans.  Management teams that are frozen are common and easy to diagnose.  Obvious changes to the business are not made – terminating a problem employee, for example.  Their thinking is dominated by a business version of whataboutery: yes, but if I terminate that problem employee, who would I replace them with and how do I know the next person will be any good?  And what about severance?  How can I afford that?   And what about this excellent employee that I need to keep who happens to be friends with the problem employee?  How will they feel?  And so on.

Walk into any troubled company and you will find a management team frozen and overwhelmed with an endless list of “what about” questions, each one serving as a barrier to making decisions.

I have a few strategies I find effective to help management teams break out of their frozen state and regain momentum.  One of the strategies, which is very relevant to the uncertainties of COVID 19, is to simply take a position (we will go back to work as normal) and set a date (by June 30), without worrying about either the position or the date being right.  Remember, the point of this strategy isn’t to be right; it is to break the Freeze response and regain momentum.

On or about March 22, President Trump, who is clearly an expert in persuasion no matter what else you may think of him, held a press conference and said that America needs to get back to work as soon as possible, specifically April 12.  He took a position and set a date. 

Immediately after the press conference, it felt to many that America had shifted from the chaos of unpreparedness, to starting down the long road to fix the problem.  The President’s approval ratings immediately jumped sharply, by about 4%, and his disapproval ratings dropped by the same amount.  He changed momentum; the accuracy of the April 12 target was not the point.

Let’s use a more personal example:  How do you feel, as an employee, if you are furloughed in mid-March, because of the virus, and simply told to go home, without pay, until further notice?

As an alternative, how much less stress do you feel if that same conversation is framed differently – you are furloughed and told to go home, without pay, but you are expected to return to your job April 12, unless new information arises impacting that timeline? 

In this example, you and your employer both know April 12 is a best guess.  Even so, the very mention of returning to work and a related timeline significantly lessens your stress and fear.

A crisis requires leadership.  No matter the issue, if you don’t know what to do:

  • take a position
  • pick a date (create a timeline)
  • don’t permanently lock into either
  • when your position and date are wrong, which they likely will be, change them
  • repeat

Sinclair Range is offering free Zoom or phone consulting in 15-minute increments to businesses struggling during these difficult times.  We believe that is one small way we can add some value.

Feel free to reach out to book a conversation. 

Stay healthy!

Scott Sinclair