Dr Matthew J. Monnot, researcher in the field of organizational behavior and development, describes how the current crisis offers an opportunity for scientists, leaders, and policy makers to understand what promotes psychological well-being both at home and at work. Yet It demands urgency for adaptation or change. In this particular crisis it demands adaptation on a global scale.
Once again new cases of Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, or, COVID-19) have spiked worldwide. At the time of writing this article there are more than 400,000 cases and more than 5.8 million related deaths. My home country, the United States, recently reported a global record of more than one million cases in a single day. The aggressive lockdowns and testing in Asian countries have kept the spread at bay, but a recent variant threatens to change that, and there appear to be significant mental health consequences of such stringent isolation and social distancing – regions of the world typically known for collectivist cultures.
This global crisis offers a potential opportunity to unite our international community around a common goal, and, an opportunity for scientists, organizational leaders, and policy makers to understand not only what inoculates us from disease, but also what inoculates us from stress. And ultimately an opportunity to understand what promotes psychological well-being both at home and at work.
An Incipient Global Change
The COVID-19 pandemic originated in Wuhan, China, but has extended to all parts of the global community. The word for crisis in Chinese is conveyed in traditional Chinese as 危機, in simplified Chinese as 危机, and finally in pinyin (a standard system for transliterating Chinese language) as wēijī. John F. Kennedy (JFK) sometimes noted in his political speeches that crisis in the Chinese language is defined by two characters, the first representing danger and the second representing opportunity.
This device of political rhetoric and leadership has been borrowed by Condoleezza Rice acting as Secretary of State during 2007 Middle East peace talks, former Vice President Al Gore during talks on climate change, one medical organization as a guiding credo, and plenty of business leaders – even the founder and CEO (Mike Sinyard) of one of my favorite companies – utilize this misunderstanding as a talking point to frame discussion.
It’s an effective rhetorical device in times of crisis or uncertainty in that it ideally creates both hope and motivation for positive change. Creating a sense of urgency is typically the first step in effecting change.
Unfortunately, the Chinese word wēijī, whether in traditional, simplified, or pinyin doesn’t mean opportunity. The character jī in combination with wē has been explained by Victor Mair, professor of Chinese literature, as something more akin to an incipient moment, crucial point, or the beginning of change.
While these leaders are correct that the first syllable does in fact mean danger it’s unfortunate that they don’t use the full depth of the second syllable when in conjunction. An opportunity is simply a possibility, but a crucial point in time that signifies the beginning of change demands action. It demands urgency for adaptation or change. In this particular crisis it demands adaptation on a global scale.
A Crucial Point to Understand Relationships and Community
Uniting individuals around a common goal – particularly those relating to emergencies or crises – is what we call in psychology a superordinate goal. Superordinate goals usurp all other goals and enable individuals, groups, and nations, and even the global community to unify efforts and create a shared culture and mission. Superordinate goals bind people together and fulfill a basic psychological human need for community.
Even in lieu of vaccine the pandemic, like many before it, will likely persist and continue to created incipient moments for change. Generally, however, it is crucial to use this time to understand commonalities, shared needs, and human behavior on a global scale.
While all needs are important for enhancing well-being, there is generally an ordering in which people choose to fulfill needs.
There have been many studies initiated to understand those psychological needs that are fundamental across all societies. These are evolved needs that have kept us alive as a species. Many will remember from a high school or college introductory psychology class Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
First, psychological needs are referred to as intrinsic rather than extrinsic – they’re sought out and valued for their own sake instead of offered as an enticement. Second, intrinsic needs are more strongly related to well-being compared to extrinsic incentives. Third, individuals who focus on extrinsic incentives over and above intrinsic needs decrease their own well-being – becoming less happy with their job, with their life overall, and their accomplishments. As an aside, individuals living in countries with a higher Human Development Index (HDI) (i.e., greater life expectancy, better education, and less wealth disparity) are more intrinsically focused – suggesting policy makers may be able to create healthier happier societies by increasing their HDI.
Finally, while all needs are important for enhancing well-being, there is generally an ordering in which people choose to fulfill needs. Scientists often distinguish those as lower order (the ones we seek first) and higher order (the ones we strive for later). In the largest representative sample of interview data across Asian countries the ordering of intrinsic needs looks like this:
As individuals across Asian nations turn their goals from seeking extrinsic incentives (e.g., money and material possessions) and seek to fulfill intrinsic needs the likelihood they view each individual need as important increases, but the ordering stays consistent.
- Health – Feeling healthy and free from illness
- Affiliation – Having positive relationships with one’s family and friends
- Safety and Security – Being free from physical threat and violence
- Self-Acceptance and Growth – Being able to find out what you’re good at, do it well, and be able to freely improve upon it
- Community – Being part of a community and wanting to help improve community conditions
Primary Importance of Physical Health and Healthy Relationships
In the above-mentioned study health is viewed as most important regardless of level of intrinsic need focus, but affiliation (not safety and security as described in Maslow’s hierarchy) is a close second, followed by safety and security. Apparently having positive relationships with others is even more important than the threat of physical violence. Community (considered a lower order need in Maslow’s hierarchy) is the highest order need across Asia, followed closely by self-acceptance and growth.
In our current pandemic this is important information. If connection with others is a need individuals strive for first, and, being connected to community is something ultimately viewed as the highest order need then lockdowns, shelter-in-place, and remote work are potentially detrimental – which is in accord with systematic reviews both in Asia and elsewhere.
Lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, physical distancing, and other mandates to protect individual health and safety are clearly necessary for survival. However, the way we affiliate with each other, how we form and improve feelings of community, and personal growth are being overlooked as we continue our path on this protracted health crisis. Empirical evidence suggests that maintaining relationships and community are also important for survival.
Loneliness and isolation are comparable in lethality to smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol. In other words, in addition to the physical viral pandemic there is a mental health pandemic that should be addressed. Fortunately, along with recent research emerging about the impact of the pandemic on mental health researchers are also working diligently to understand the mechanisms of distress – particularly related to relationships and community.
Researchers have rushed to understand the mechanisms by which COVID-19 and pandemics in general impact individual well-being and performance at the individual psychological, organizational, and international cultural level.
Emerging Research: Implications for Individuals
Computer mediated communication at work and at home has become ubiquitous. The number of daily active users of Zoom increased from 10 million in December 2018 to 300 million in April of 2020. Burnout associated with online video conferencing, colloquially referred to as “Zoom Fatigue,” is being studied empirically using biopsychosocial theories to argue that video meetings are less effective than in-person meetings.
At a psychological level, it is more cognitively taxing for individuals to rely on verbal communication than both verbal and nonverbal cues associated with in-person contact. Eye contact enhances social connection by producing faster responses, ease of memorizing faces, and perceptions of likeability and attractiveness. Audiovisual delays in online meeting transmission cause others to seem less friendly, less attentive, less extroverted and conscientious, and less willing to accommodate requests. At the moment, it seems technological limitations of video conferencing software may decrease both the ease with which people bond and the likelihood that others will be seen as positive social connections.
Emerging Research: Implications for Organizations and Culture
Finally, correctly accommodating remote work at both the organizational and cultural level will influence organizational performance. In part, the organizational design features that are associated with control, whether direct or indirect, will determine effectiveness of remote work policy. Cultural values determine how amenable individuals are to remote workplace policies.
Organization design variables such as strategy, structure, informational processes, and incentive systems share a reciprocal influence with individual-level phenomena. Informational processes for instance are directly tied to the technologies that are utilized for employee communication Employee communication facilitates knowledge transfer.
Spontaneous knowledge transfer and knowledge creation is hampered by remote work and electronic media.
Knowledge transfer is a product of cognitive and relational components of organizational life and is influenced by remote work. Cognitive components include shared mental schemes, language and narratives, and identification with goals and values. Relational components, on the other hand, refer to quality of relationships.
A relational component important for innovation involves informal communication or knowledge transfer. Not only does long term telework reduce the quality of relationships with coworkers it also reduces organizational innovation. Research demonstrates that less formal face-to-face communication – historically referred to as “water cooler talk” or “power lunches” – are important for innovation. This spontaneous knowledge transfer and knowledge creation is hampered by remote work and electronic media such as email, instant message, and audiovisual communication tools seem unable compensate for this loss at the moment.
Finally, an important relational feature of innovative cultures is the sharing of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge includes information gleaned from work experiences and is difficult to transfer in written or verbal form. It is different from explicit knowledge, which is easy to codify and convey. Therefore, tacit knowledge transfer in organizations is benefitted by working in close spatial proximity. In-person communication interactions provide a channel of communication that is rich in terms of continuity, feedback, and learning
Wēijī and the Potential for Opportunity
Whichever way you choose to interpret or misinterpret 危机 or wēijī, there are important opportunities that remain. JFK was trying to unite his country during global competition, Secretary of State Rice was trying to unify a region during protracted conflict, Vice President Gore was trying to create a collective urgency to combat climate change, and Mike Sinyard was explaining how he motivates employees in a turbulent business environment.
Each was using a savvy leadership practice to unite individuals, organizations, or countries around a superordinate goal and create a shared sense of urgency and commitment toward change – leveraging our evolved psychological affiliative motives and a need for community. The current crisis offers the same opportunity for scientists, leaders, and policy makers to do the same.
Matthew J. Monnot
Matthew J. Monnot, PhD is an experienced researcher and consultant in the field of organizational behavior and development. Dr. Monnot has been published in such top-ranked journals as the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Psychological Assessment, Applied Psychology, Social Indicators Research, and others. His work has been cited in popular media publications such as the Scientific American, New York Post, US News & World Report, San Francisco Chronicle, and Associated Press. Dr Monnot lives and works in San Francisco, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @Matt_Monnot
Banner: Photo: Kevin Schmid