How to keep control over direction when managing uncertainty.
The summer in Norway is in its second half and many people who decided to spend their holidays abroad have returned to the country taking back with them an open debate with regards to testing for Covid-19. These tests are not obligatory, however they are highly recommended.
There is a clear fear that people will not get tested voluntarily because of a certain stigma for having chosen to spend their holidays abroad despite the potential exposure to an infection. The government and health professionals appeal strongly to people’s conscience and I hear from many sides the words “common sense”. This situation is a perfect example why simply recommending actions that would be essential to achieve a specific goal — in this case preventing an increase in Covid-19 cases — hardly ever has the desired effect.
Crises require new ways of thinking as well as difficult and sometimes unpopular choices to be made by the leadership and stakeholders to the crises. While it is hard to determine when a crisis actually starts — most frequently this is when it is actually labeled as such — these decisions once taken are usually rules, regulations or other binding forms of implementation. There might be resistance initially, however, stakeholders usually have the means to implement their actions and in many cases people also follow the rules.
Nevertheless, rules and restrictions are often seen and perceived not only as a disruption to normality, but also as a sacrifice to be made by each and everyone. Covid-19 is yet another example of a crisis where leaders almost apologised for the restrictions and emphasised the importance of everyone’s sacrifice. This sub-tone within the crisis communication can be beneficial but it can also become a subconscious anchor in people’s minds which can become relevant at a later stage in the crisis. People were willing to suffer and accept restrictions for the greater good, however, not for an unlimited period of time, which is when the dilemma starts.
In a previous article I highlighted how stakeholders and leaders hardly ever make a clear declaration of a crisis being over. Instead, they have a different way of approaching this peculiar situation by loosening restrictions and turning them into recommendations. I know from my own experience that this is when problems start for you as a leader, and I would like to point out six key reasons why:
1- Giving up control
While rules are clear and give an indication of the seriousness of the situation — simultaneously not offering much of a choice for people — recommendations are the opposite, merely strong advice. However, due to their nature, the person or entity issuing recommendations relinquishes influence on whether they are being followed or not. Giving recommendations basically hands over the responsibility of following them to the ones on the receiving end. In turn this means that you as the stakeholder in a crisis are dependent on people understanding your intention and having the same understanding of the situation. However, this also means you will have to accept if people are not following the recommendations, hence the situation is out of your direct control.
2- Struggling to find the correct formulation
It is always very difficult to formulate recommendations. From my own experience I know that you try to formulate these almost in a phrasing of “there is really not another option”, however, this is an illusion because a recommendation does by nature offer a choice. Let’s look at the example of masks in Covid-19. Most countries where masks were obligatory have moved to recommending their use to protect oneself and others after infection numbers started to fall. The challenge with formulations like this include possible consequences but also implicit messaging that leads to the perception; if it is that serious, why is it not a rule (anymore)? I learned that the formulation is less important than the timing.
Recommendations can be highly effective if they are used in the build-up of a crisis. When the situation is not yet that critical people can get used to recommendations and they serve as an indicator for what could be next if the situation deteriorates. People still have a choice when circumstances are not that precarious and they can prepare if this changes, thus increasing the likelihood of adherence.
When used at the back-end of a crisis, recommendations should be formulated in a way which ensures that people understand rules will be put back in place if the situations gets worse in order to create a reference and not leave room for doubt.
3- Miscalculating de-facto responsibility
During crises leaders are put in a position to take decisions, ensure focus, facilitate an innovative approach to coming out of the crisis stronger, and crucially with the least harm to the people affected by the situation. When moving from rules to recommendations, the burden of responsibility is transferred to the very same people that should be protected. While this might be appreciated and in many cases welcomed, the transfer of responsibility hides a trap. If the situation gets worse it will always be the responsibility of the leadership and not of those who did not follow the recommendations.
This is comparable with being a parent. You are not relieved of the responsibility of being the guardian of your child if you give the strong recommendation to not ride the bicycle in the street, without actually stating that it is not allowed, and the child has an accident. While you can transfer the responsibility of the decision, every leader needs to be aware that this does not free them from the overall responsibility.
4- Trusting common sense
The decision to open up the borders while recommending people not to travel is a multifaceted in-congruent message, meaning a message that has contradicting content and where the implications do not match the words. While people are free to travel to selected places, they are still recommended not to do so because of potential risks.
With the transfer of responsibility also comes the assumption that people will choose the safe option and not travel in order to minimise the risks of contagion and exposure, as well as the consideration of not putting others at risk.
“There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.” Franklin Lloyd Wright
A phrase that is often used in this context is that people should use “common sense”. Over many years I learned and can say with absolute conviction that there is no such thing as common sense. The idea of it is based on a common set of values, a shared understanding of the world and a common perspective of what the priorities are. However, the opposite is true. We might have a shared world view to some extent but our individual and collective values are not necessarily the same.
While for some it came naturally that this year’s holidays are being spent in their home countries, for others it is a key factor that holidays are being spent abroad and if the government opens up for travelling it is technically allowed, just not recommended. Presuming and trusting that the population as a whole would react according to “common sense” is one of the key miscalculations leaders can make.
5- Assuming consequential thinking
A famous experiment led by Walter Mischel at Stanford University tested the ability of children with regards to consequential thinking versus immediate gratification by asking them to wait to eat one marshmallow until the instructor came back after an undefined period of time so they could get a reward in the form of an extra marshmallow for doing so. In other words, you either eat one immediately when you favour instant gratification or get two if you wait for an undefined time (delayed gratification).
This experiment outlines a phenomenon that is very clearly present with regards to recommendations in crisis. People who have a tendency to follow recommendations have a clear focus on and prioritise potential consequences in their thinking, while those who tend not to follow recommendations are after instant gratification and do not focus on outcomes as consequences but rather as possibilities.
Leaders often assume that most people will consider consequences as their priority and act with those in focus. This creates a blind spot with regards to the ones who would have eaten the marshmallow immediately.
6- Implicit messaging
As difficult as it is to pinpoint the beginning of a crisis, it is even more difficult to determine its ending. Crises hardly ever have clear endings unless they were seemingly avoided or handled exceptionally well. When moving from rules to recommendations, the accompanying message is that the situation is a lot better and we can ease off our restrictions. The danger is that this can easily be read as the worst is over. Many times this might be accurate and the situation does not turn for the worse again, but Covid-19 seems not to be one of these cases. As many others like it, this epidemic (pandemic) moves in waves and hits peaks at different times in different places.
Naturally, people seek hope during challenging times and loosening of restrictions imply that there is hope. Combined with the anchor of having sacrificed things mentioned earlier, people naturally use the newly regained freedom and decision-making mandate in how a recommendation can be interpreted to reward themselves. Explicit messages and clarity on the set of rules are crucial to dealing with crisis successfully.
Recommendations mean a lack of clarity in direction and leave room for one’s own interpretation. In the last few years I worked with the development of learning games for business and teams and whenever we test a game and its game dynamics there is one thing that all tests have in common; when we apply rules people follow them because they give guidance. The players play within these rules and try to test them but generally do not cross the boundaries. The moment the boundary is unclear, it will be crossed. Not by all but by many, and furthermore, this is a contagious process.
In many ways this mirrors reality and particularly when it comes to crisis situations, where naturally stricter rules and more hierarchical leadership applies. In such situations it is crucial for leaders to remember that people will always find a way to manoeuvre within the given set of rules.
Recommendations on the other hand blurry the lines and naturally invite to expand the boundaries since there are no consequences for not obeying rules. Ultimately it is essential that leaders reflect carefully over how and when to use recommendations instead of rules and regulations as it can be a key decisive factor as to whether a crisis is managed successfully or not.