Using Positive Psychology Against The Coronavirus. It Really Does Work.

When you go to business school you learn a lot about uncertainty. When things are unclear, you get more data, build a model, and try to weigh your options. And if you apply the science of Operations Research, you can model almost everything: customer demand, seasonal variations, competitive threats, and trends in consumer behavior.

In the case of the Coronavirus, however, none of this is working well. We really don’t know what will happen.

Yes, there are a myriad of studies and models, but few of them are mature. Just last week a scientist concluded that the infection will go on for two years

Why? Because this virus is unpredictable and changeable. It’s invisible, highly contagious, and it mutates. Some of us get it and don’t know we had it. Some of us are immune. And some of us will die from it. (That’s why it’s called the “Novel Coronavirus,” it’s very “novel.”)

Eventually, it will be understood, but right now every day is a surprise. And even Bill Gates recently told us that this pandemic is a warmup: we can expect more of these to come.

So now, as we call think about going back to work, it feels like we’re playing Russian Roulette. As a comedian put it, it’s like you have a bag of skittles and you know one of them could be a death pill. Will you start eating the bag?

As the NY Times put it, we face the dilemma of Your Life or Your Livelihood. What a terrible choice to have.

The Psychology Of Total Uncertainty

I’ve been talking with dozens of companies about this, and most are working hard. But at the bottom of it all is the problem of psychology. Will people feel comfortable coming back to work? How do we get back our sense of safety and confidence?

Well, this week I had an hour talk with Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist and the father of positive psychology. We are doing a big program with BetterUp on Resilience, and I wanted to get his insights.

He told me many things to consider.

First, having a cheerful disposition really helps.

Dr. Sheldon Cohen studied the rhinovirus (related to Coronavirus) and found statistically that people who are more cheerful and positive are less likely to get sick. And when they do, they have lesser symptoms and recover faster. So if we can create a sense of joy and happiness at work, people will actually perform better. (This gets to the “puppy strategy” I describe below.)

Second, develop a positive outlook.

As research has shown, people tend to fall into a range of “optimists” and “pessimists.” People with optimistic personalities see problems as temporary and localized, and they feel they have the power to overcome the challenges. Pessimistic people, on the other hand, feel powerless and predict doom. They worry about the bad outcome, and they let it paralyze them from the response. 

Well the US Army did a multi-year study of PTSD and found several important things.

  • First, there is a bell curve of PTSD response. On the right side are people who thrive: when a bomb goes off they become super-powered and often lead others to safety.
  • In the middle are the majority, who are shocked and stunned. They feel unable to make decisions and often take time to recover. 
  • On the left of the curve are the 5% who do very poorly, and they suffer for years. What’s predictable about these people? These people suffered the most traumatic events and were those who had a generally pessimistic outlook (the psychological test was administered before combat). In fact, the impact of “pessimism” was four times more predictive than the level of trauma they experienced.

So in this uncertain war, which we may face for some time, we need a combination of good cheer and optimism to succeed. So we need to apply these ideas to our response.

(In my detailed interview with Marty, which will be available in the Josh Bersin Academy, he also describes how this psychology tells us who will best lead us out of the pandemic. It turns out that people with a “positive outlook” are more likely to win elections, but not necessarily be better leaders. We need sober, serious, pragmatic leaders right now, and cheerleaders on the sidelines.)

Applying Psychology to The Pandemic

How does this apply to our situation today?

Suppose you’re ready to start opening up your offices and ask people to come back to work. How do you get them to come?

Marty explained that there are two things to do.

The first is to surround yourself with “happy things.” Get a puppy. Listen to music. Watch funny TikTok or YouTube videos. Anything that moves you to the right on the curve will help you deal with stress and uncertainty. And it increases your resistance to the virus!  

Maybe we shouldn’t watch so much news. The news media thrives under the theme that “if it bleeds it leads,” so he advises we turn it off as much as we can.

And then there’s the “puppy strategy.” It turns out dogs are in huge demand. We bought a dog in our family (Archie the Swissie) and my kids and wife have had tremendous amounts of fun playing with him. He really brings us joy and helps us forget the uncertainty of life today.

Archie the Swissie

Companies are doing all sorts of amazing things. I’ve talked with HR leaders who have company-wide dance classes, cooking classes, and all sorts of meditation online. These are all part of your “positive psychology” strategy, and I encourage you to do more.

The second way to deal with this is to “prevent catastrophes from happening.”

In the Army study, people who went through the worst situations had a lower ability to recover. So our strategy in uncertainty is “risk minimization. We have to assume the enemy is everwhere – so the more we do to clean, disinfect, test, and remove risk – the better for our people and our business. (Read my our Back to Work Checklist for more.)

Remember, also, that these principles apply to customers as well as employees. When people feel happiness and optimism, they don’t just come back to work – the customers return too.

Every company has to apply these principles in their own way. Airlines, for example, have to try to make standing in line, boarding the plane, and sitting in the seat as enjoyable and “risk-reduced” as possible.

What Should HR Do?

While there are many new practices to adopt, we are still operating in uncertainty. So we need a dose of good cheer, optimism, and risk minimization together. This means admitting that we don’t know everything, but being positively curious about a scientific approach to solutions. But continuing to be as careful as we can be.

I, for one, am astounded at people who practice “willful ignorance” of the risk. Psychology tells us that this will not inspire confidence. We need to take this crisis seriously, but approach it in a positive, optimistic way.

For those of us in HR or leadership, this exercises a new muscle. The muscle of daily and hourly resilience. Every day and every hour we have to be on the lookout for new information: what’s working? What isn’t? Where is the infection dormant? Where is it high? Which employees are doing well? Which employees are doing poorly? What part of the work environment is successful? What part is broken?

The virus is smart. But we are smarter. We will outwit it in time.

Consider This A Strategy Built On Curiosity

Become curious about what to do next. Curiosity is a non-judgemental word that reflects a childlike desire to understand. Start a process of ongoing curiosity, taking a scientific approach to listening, adapting, and changing every day.

And if you think you’re still in a bit of a shock yourself, take a look at the Back to Work Checklist we’re building. It’s filled with things to consider, and I welcome your ideas too.

Positive psychology is an important tool right now. It gives us a sense of agency, power, and optimism during the crisis. 

While we don’t have all the answers, if we’re careful and positive we will figure our way through this.

(And getting a puppy definitely helps.)

PS. Stay tuned for our video with Marty and our upcoming webinar with BetterUp on resilience and positive thinking.