Fighting Your Unconscious Mind in Times of Change
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
How much time you spend thinking about how you think about the world? When was the last time you challenged a strongly held belief of your own? How often in today's world have you been surprised by how off your prediction capability of what will happen was wrong, very wrong? With everything happening in the world, we've all heard the call to "follow the science". But why do we have such a tendency to follow the science only as long as it agrees with the narrative running in our minds?
If you want to be a strong leader, and you want your business to be resilient against life's unpredictability, the science that will help you the most is the science of human psychology. We've all seen the communication guides discussing how each of us processes the information we receive:
And most of us spend our energy trying to understand why other people think the way they do. But if you want to understand others, first you need to understand your own biases and how they warp your view of the world. And to dive into that understanding, we'll use the framework outlined in one of the most popular business books in the world, Influence, by Robert B. Cialdini. If you haven't read Influence yet, I highly recommend it, especially as a way to analyze your own thinking and behavior patterns.
Influence is often referenced as a resource for persuading others, but for our purposes, we will use it as a resource for persuading ourselves, for preventing our routine mental programming from sabotaging our ability to predict, observe, and respond to crisis for our businesses. We'll use the 6 behaviors Cialdini identifies and look at how some introspection on those behaviors on our part will help us, and by extension our businesses, become more resilient.
People love to reciprocate the good deeds done for them. How often do you offer someone something to drink when you meet with them? How often do you leave small gifts, such as pens and notepads, with clients and business partners? How often do you buy products or services from someone you also want to do business with? How often do your clients and business partners do these things for you?
LIke all of the behaviors we're discussing, reciprocity is deeply ingrained in our behavior. When someone does something nice for us, we have a natural desire to do something nice for that person in return.
So how can we apply this to the resilience of our business? Well, when your business is facing a crisis, that is also a time that you will be most likely to call on friends and business acquaintances for help. And when your friends and business acquaintances are facing a crisis in their own business, they will call on you for help. So the easy answer is, show kindness, compassion, and a willingness to help others in your network, both when times are good and when times are tough. Because a community built on reciprocity is a resilient community, a community that builds itself up and thrives, especially when facing adversity.
People will make decisions based on your consistency before they make decisions based the latest data. We all know people, and often ourselves in retrospect, who will say and do things that contradict what everyone else sees happening, but that are consistent with previous actions.
Case in point, the challenges in updating public policy around the COVID-19 pandemic as more is learned about the virus and how it spreads and impacts people. A widespread number of policy makers are still prescribing actions for the pandemic that are based on information from 5-6 months ago, not because they're purposely trying to follow old science, but because the innate human drive to be consistent with our previous behaviors is far stronger than our willingness to update our views based on the latest information.
As a business leader, consistency is important in providing a base level of behavioral expectations for your employees, clients, and partners to work from when interacting with you. But as you set those consistency expectations, focus on regularly updating your views/behaviors as relevant information becomes available. Great areas to apply this approach are Finance/Accounting, customer metrics such as sales/conversions, marketing feedback, and regulatory guidelines.
If you can provide a consistent approach that shows you are willing to update your plans and processes based on new and updated data, your employees and clients will be comfortable with how you approach and work through crisis, because they will know that you consistently make decisions based on the best information available.
When people are unsure of what to do, they look to nearby social groups for clues to what the correct action should be. And paradoxically, the more people in a group that are unsure of what to do, the more likely they will choose inaction over action, leading to confounding situations such as when someone is hurt in an accident and people just stand around, waiting for someone else to make the first move.
When your business is facing a crisis, having a clear business continuity plan in place is key to making social proof a strength, not a weakness. If the roles and responsibilities are clear and well communicated for your business continuity plan, you and your crisis team will be able to take the right actions quickly and decisively. And by moving quickly and decisively your employees and clients will be spurred to action by the power of social proof, as you show them the way forward in a time of crisis.
We all want to be liked by others, and we employ many different strategies to get people to like us. Examples include humor, complimenting others, trying to look our best in public, mimicking the behaviors of others, and perhaps most interestingly, trying to create positive associations with other people and groups that are well received. A great example from Influence, one that we're all familiar with, is the sports fan, who frequently uses "we" as a descriptor when their favorite team is doing well, but switches to "they" when their favorite team is doing poorly. And most people are completely unaware that they do this!
The principle of Likeing can become very challenging in a crisis situation. The very nature of crisis makes it unpleasant to most people. So how can we make this automatic behavior an advantage in crisis?
Make sure your response and plans emphasize the positive direction your business is moving during a crisis, and continuously recognize the efforts and good work your crisis team members are doing. People respond very powerfully when they perceive things to moving in a positive direction, to the extent that even miserable current conditions will be ignored and brushed aside on the confidence that things are getting better. And by emphasizing the positive direction of your crisis response, people will want to associate themselves with that response, and the efforts being made to keep things moving in that positive direction.
People look to the experts when they are uninformed/under informed, and they will do things that they normally would avoid at all costs in order to appease the direction of the authority figures they see as experts. What does it take for someone to perceived as an "expert" or "authority figure"? Surprisingly little, it turns out. Titles, such as doctor, office, judge, PhD, professor, etc., whether real, or disturbingly, even when fake. Clothing and uniforms are also used to convey authority and expertise, including suits, doctors scrubs, lab coats, police uniforms, and professional attire.
Knowing how automatically people respond to the symbols of authority, for your crisis team to be most effective in driving action during a crisis, it is excellent practice to ensure that the roles and titles for the crisis team members are clearly communicated to all stakeholders, and that your crisis team "looks the part" by being dressed accordingly for the situation. By utilizing these universal signals of authority, you will drive faster action and participation by all stakeholders involved in a crisis situation.
If there's not much of something, people have a stronger desire to have the scarce object or service. Take business continuity expertise for example.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most non-Fortune 500 companies found themselves scrambling to survive the effects of the virus itself, and even more critically, surviving the government response to the virus. And because of the type of broad perspective and expertise needed for effective Business Continuity Planning, the vast majority of BCP experts are focused on and recruited by Fortune 500 companies with similarly large budgets for such planning.
This leaves precious little BCP expertise available for the 52% of the economy made up of small businesses, yet common sense tells us that these are the businesses that need this very expertise the most at this time. If you've survived the pandemic so far, and never want to go through such turmoil again, now's the time for you to reach out to a BCP expert and put a plan in place that takes you from surviving to thriving during a crisis.
In conclusion, we all benefit from taking the time to better understand our unconscious thought processes, those automatic response mechanisms that we use to make processing the craziness of our days easier. And once we have a grasp of how we filter the information we receive, we are in a great position to apply it to our businesses, ensuring we're prepared for the future, making our businesses, and our communities, more resilient than ever before.