Communication is defined as the process by which a person, group, or organisation (the sender) transmits some type of information (the message) to another person, group, or organisation (the receiver). Effective communication occurs only if the receiver understands the exact information or idea that the sender intended to transmit. Effective leadership and communication can make the current health and economic crises manageable instead of overwhelming. Leading through a crisis requires adopting a systematic approach to problem-solving, decision making and effective communication. The key considerations to reduce the panic people feel in these times of Covid19 pandemic when their world seems to be spiraling out of control is to open up all the lines of communication, adopting a more directive style of leadership to clarify priorities, creating face-to-face team decision-making structures to help people focus their attention on critical tasks.
But, with “social distancing” along with face-mask becoming mandatory health requirements to keep ourselves safe, effective verbal face-to-face communication has become very difficult. The physical distancing and face-masks have created a ‘physical barrier’ to the communication process. Across the world even before the COVID pandemic, smartphones and headphones have created one-person shells intensifying social insulation. When a headphone wearer has a one-to-one encounter, the sealed ears offer a ready excuse to treat the other person as an object, something to navigate around than someone to acknowledge or at least notice. Smartphones now absorb people in virtual reality and it deadens them to someone physically near them. The resulting social autism adds to the ongoing list of side-effects of the invasion of technology in our daily lives and now we are faced with a masked world.
Neuroscientists has discovered a class of human brain neurons, the spindle cells, acts the most rapidly of any, guiding snap social decisions for us. Another variety of brain cells, mirror neurons, sense both the move another person is about to make and their feelings, and instantaneously prepare us to imitate that movement and feel with them. But, with a masked face, this would not be possible, enhancing social autism. The social brain is the sum of the neural mechanism that orchestrate our interactions as well as our thoughts and feelings about people and our relationship. The social brain represents the only biological system in our bodies that continually attunes us to, and in turn, becomes influenced by the internal state of people we are with. Wearing a face mask has handicapped us all. It is a very sad situation for the young school-going children, for the past six months, they have been deprived of social interaction. Our social interactions play a vital role in reshaping our brain through “neuroplasticity”, which means that repeated experience sculpts the shape, size, and number of neurons and their synaptic connections. The scientist has discovered that our relationships have subtle, yet powerful, lifelong impacts on us. By repeatedly driving our brain into a given register, our key relationship can gradually mould certain neural circuitry. In effect, being chronically hurt and anger, or being emotionally nourished, by someone we spend time with daily over the course of years can re-fashion our brains. Coronavirus enforced online classes and social distancing would dull our children’s “social intelligence”.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920 defined social intelligence as “the ability to understand and manage men and women”, a skill we all need to navigate and live well in this world. Thorndike proposed another principle for our social aptitude: “acting wisely in human relations”. The social responsiveness of the brain demands that we be wise, that we realize how not just our own moods but our very biology is being driven and molded by the other people in our lives, and in turn, it demands that we take stock of how we affect other people’s emotions and biology. Emotions are contagious like the coronavirus and we easily “catch” strong emotions.
The technical aspects of the emergency response to the Coronavirus pandemic are straightforward: The experts are known, resources are being allocated, and increasing amounts of data are being gathered by epidemiologists to guide decisions. There are many trial and errors, there are many potential missteps and scientists are working overtime to find an effective vaccine. The more challenging issue and affecting far more individuals, organizations, and communities worldwide are the human dimensions of the response. Lockdown, quarantines, ‘social distancing’ has affected the social animal — the man.
The policymakers have to analyse the consequences of this global social, health and economic catastrophe. This need for continuity in spite of this unnerving disruption falls on the shoulders of the organizational leaders. Leading with a level head and guiding people into the future despite risks and uncertainties requires communicating clearly the mitigation plan and the requirements. The Covid19 outbreak, the industrial incidents and natural disasters like floods offer numerous tests of trust as well as the opportunity to be a hero to the stakeholders – communities, employees, shareholders, and customers. Trust is built through two-way communication, dialogue and actions, not proclamations and intentions; involving those affected in defining in tangible terms what trust means in these circumstances.
Research shows that approximately 50% of people in organizations are “worst-case thinkers”. In a crisis they will be operating from fear, contributing negative energy and sharing doomsday scenarios. The antidote to this is for leaders to be transparent and communicate a realistic assessment of what is most likely to happen. But, effective communication is easier said than done. A phenomenon that often occurs in the course of downward communication from supervisors to subordinates is known as the “MUM effect”. This refers to people’s reluctance to transmit bad news to others, as in “Mum’s the word”, being silent about something. Further research has found that managers direct less than 15% of their total communication to their superiors, filtering information. When people communicate upward, their conversations tend to be shorter than discussions with their peers. Flattening the organizational structures and the advent of teams are likely to have made these figures less extreme nowadays. “Mitigated speech” is inherent in communication between subordinates and the superiors, especially in Asian cultures like ours. By mitigated speech a subordinate attempts to downplay, or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.
In midst of this pandemic, several serious industrial incidents have occurred – the blast and leakage of poisonous gas from the LG plant in Vizag, and the blast and fire in the OIL Baghjan Well BGR#05. Then, there was the crash of the Air India Express Boeing 737 at Kozhikode killing 20 people including pilot Deepak Sathe and co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar. While there may be many technical reasons for these disasters. Studies have revealed industrial incidents and plane crashes more likely to happen as a result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial technical malfunctions and more due to mitigated speech. Communication barrier such as “mitigation” or mitigated speech is always a reason for many disasters. Studies have reported typical air crashes to occur when the weather is poor—not terrible, but bad enough that the pilot feels a little bit more stressed than usual. The second reason in the overwhelming number of crashes, the plane is behind schedule and the pilots were hurrying. The third reason, in 52% of crashes, the pilot at the time of the accident has been awake for 12 hours or more, meaning that the pilot was tired and not thinking sharply. And, the last but not least reason is that 44% of the time, the two pilots have never flown together before, so they were not comfortable with each other. Highlighting the fact that barriers to communication can cause fatal accidents. A typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors. One of the people committing an error is not a problem. But, a series of errors – one after another and a combination of all those errors lead to disaster.
Effective communication, decisions made and actions are taken in times of crisis resonate far beyond the present and help define an organization’s culture for years afterward. The lessons we can learn and the practices that can be put in place now will make our organizations resilient and better prepared for future disruptive events, new diseases and other forms of ecological disasters.
The writer works independently as a Quality Management consultant and has implemented ISO Quality Management System, Environmental Management System, Occupational Health and Safety Management System and Energy Management in scores of service and manufacturing organisations.
He teaches Human Resource Management at post-graduate level in Gauhati University, a visiting faculty at Assam Administrative Staff College and trainer with many other public and private sector organisations.
The views expressed by the author are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.