In the light of Corona – Part 2: Things will not go back to the old normal

In the first blog I wrote that there are three components in a disruption: trajectories, trigger and response. In this one, I’ll look into the responses – and more specifically, the feelings driving them.

There is a difference between an emergency and a disruption. While in the chaos of the upheaval both may feel the same, the difference is noteworthy. After an emergency has passed or been dealt with, things go back to normal. After a disruption, things never go back to the old normal – instead, when relative stability returns, things have gone forward to a new normal. 

Let me repeat that. Disruption is not an isolated event. Instead, after disruption, things have changed fundamentally. This is very difficult to swallow, and the literature of businesses that have undergone a disruption highlight it well: the firms who treated a nascent disruption as a separate incident, waiting for things to go back to normal, went under, whereas firms where the permanence of the new shape of things was accepted, did better.

Disastrous events bring out what is best and worst in us humans. From research delving the responses of individuals in the times of disaster we know that people react differently to a surprising calamity: the majority gets paralysed, a minority lashes out, and another, the smallest minority of individuals maintain their ability to act and reflect their actions. However, the emotions we undergo are more nuanced. In popular literature and entertainment, a notion of ‘five (or seven) stages of grief’ sometimes pops up. While actual research on the theme has not found evidence to support it, the list of responses can be adapted and complemented to help thinking about how we on an individual level deal with a disruption. The sentiments most often co-exist and fluctuate, not progressing in any nice and clear-cut order, but reflecting on them helps shape such responses to the situation at hand, that in the best-case scenario, construct an even better post-disruption normal. 

Shock, denial, anger

Currently, most of us are living in a state of shock. We deal with it in different ways: some of us are baffled and nigh paralysed, some of us hold ourselves together by mechanically focusing on our to-do-lists, some of us do the virtual equivalent of flailing and running amok, and some of us adopt the ostrich strategy, and simply shut out the unfolding events as something not pertaining to me. 

The last example highlights denial. In Finland there is currently an ongoing public discussion about the need to formally limit freedom of movement, as people in denial keep traveling to have ‘holidays’ up north, or visit shopping malls. Denial requires only a slight nudge to turn into anger: “who are you to tell me what I can or cannot do!”

Anger can also emerge without denial, through fear. The social media is ripe with people being angry: the people who fear for themselves and their loved ones are angry at the ones perceivably dismissing the risk, and the people in denial are angry at the authorities and others for overreacting and limiting their rights.

Depression, anxiety, bargaining

Depression is sorrow without a singular source, whereas anxiety is fear without a clear target. They are similar in their ability to overwhelm the whole existence of an individual, to become all-encompassing clouds that feel suffocating. While in the corona crisis there are ample reasons for both sorrow and fear, neither or these feelings is actually dependent on the real personal losses or the direct threats to an individual, but emerge as something more intangible.

Also examples of bargaining are easy to find from social media: “If we just stay home for two weeks, things will go back to normal.”, “If we just meet outside, there is surely no risk.”, “If it is safe for ten people to meet, it cannot be so bad that we are eleven.” There are two types of bargaining logic, where the first one tries to bargain back the normalcy and the second, related to denial, tries to bargain for the excuses of continuing life as if nothing out there had anything to do with me.

Acceptance, testing, compassion

“The acknowledgment of facts is the beginning of all wisdom”, quipped famously a former president of ours. The first requirement of beneficial action is acceptance: things have changed and they will not go back. But acceptance can be passive or active, and the difference between the two types is the way we perceive our personal role in life. Do things happen to us, or do we do things? In reality, it is always both, however we people differ in our emphasis as to whether we are more prone to seeking for causes within ourselves or in the outside world. 

This brings us to another, even older wisdom that can be found from a prayer: “Grant me strength to accept that which I cannot change, courage to change that which I can, and wisdom to tell the two apart.” This wisdom is not easy to come by, especially without engaging in actions to see their outcomes. Testing is about taking initiative, trying out new things to see what happens and where are the limits of what I can actually in these circumstances do and achieve. There are examples of firms who have already engaged in testing: they try out new services, like taxi drivers starting to home-deliver groceries or new modes of delivery, like gyms offering online exercise session. Testing logic builds on what I can do, and explores what happens if I do it. 

Testing aims at finding out what I can do for me and mine. But as a wonderful outcome of this global crisis shows, we humans are also an empathetic species: even in the most life-threatening circumstances, we find it in ourselves to care for others. Almost hidden beneath the scum and aggression of social media in normal times, the inherent compassion of humanity has risen and stands as strong as ever. We see people caring for the elderly they don’t know, quarantined individuals opening their windows to celebrate the hospital workers, sharing applications popping up, entrepreneurial individuals going about trying to find solutions for the benefit of all, not guided by their individual revenue streams. 

Towards the new normal – with compassion as compass

While it is now, during a moment of a global standstill, impossible to know what are the right moves and actions to mitigate the negative, there is another way for mapping the way forward. It pertains equally to us individuals, to firms and to the wider society. 

As we simply don’t have the facts based on which we could analyze the positive and negative outcomes of any of our actions, we cannot merely reason ourselves out of this. This does not mean that we should give up on our rational capabilities, give up on knowledge, critical and reflective thinking. They are important – especially as we are collectively engaged in testing what can or cannot be done, exploring the outcomes of the actions we can make. 

But there is something more important that we can use as a guideline for shaping the new normal. When our actions are driven not only by cold reason, but genuinely born out of compassion and good will, we sensitize ourselves anew to the fact that we are of one species. When we use compassion as our compass, even when we make mistakes, we are still shaping a future that draws from the very best of what humanity can be.

As an individual, when I act in ways that not only protect me and mine, but also helps others, I know that in the future I can also rely on others to help me. As a firm, when we think about the resources we govern and think how they can be deployed to help others in need, we create immeasurable good-will capital that in turn can help tide us over the stormiest waters. As a society, when we genuinely embrace the value of each individual, we create trust that is the founding stone of any functioning society. 


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