People Get Ready, There’s a Change a Comin

By Mike Cook for the BBJ

As the world around us continues to reflect what seems like a movie more than reality it is time to look forward to the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. Now more than ever it is time to focus on those relationships that have daily kept us whole, Wholeness will return again and when it does, we can be ready to return to what we refer to as “normal.” For families this is easy, those connected to us by birth or blood are automatically included in our circles of care. For most employers, that is their employees. How employers relate and stay connected will have a lot to do with whether there are businesses to return to once the worst is behind us.

With apologies to Curtis Mayfield, I have thought for years that the opening line to his classic 1965 tune went, “People get ready, there’s a change a comin” when in fact the song’s words are “People get ready, there’s a train a comin.” No matter really as I believe the spirit of the song is what matters, it is time to get ready for a change that is long overdue.

In 2006 I published my first book ‘Thrive: Standing on Your Own Two Feet in a Borderless World’ It was targeted at the then Millennial population that was just starting to enter the mainstream workforce. Among the stories I included at the time was my experience of living through the reality of a hurricane, Frederick was its name, when it pummeled the gulf coast, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Louisiana, in 1979. I have lots to share about the event but what most caught my attention was the level of coordination and collaboration that characterized the hours leading up to the storm’s arrival, the storm itself and the immediate aftermath, and how quickly all the cooperation evaporated once the obvious danger had disappeared. That event was seminal in what later became my full-time profession, improving organizational performance with a focus on the human factor.

In my twenty-five + years consulting and coaching performance in organizations, large and small, I applied my understanding of people’s behavior in a known crisis to great effect and my financial benefit. Urgency, a clear and imminent consequence, usually BAD, was the issue that had to be present in order to generate optimum cooperation inside an organization. Was this always the case? Not necessarily; when organizations, businesses that is to say, were in their formulative or start-up phase and survival was not assured, employers and employees tended to band together and rally around the issue of survival, if they all had a stake in that outcome. And, it generally didn’t matter if that stake was financial or emotional.

Once survival was assured or at least the appearance of sustainability had emerged it became more difficult to mount any initiatives that required an “all hands-on deck” effort. Individuals began to emerge from the common cause and personal preference began to interfere with organizational performance. If you check your own experience, I imagine you’ll find that it will match what I have just described. What may be less obvious is that this operating condition, which I will label “Not much at stake” is what you call going to work every day. You with your bundle of personal preferences along with organizational priorities attempting to play the game alongside co-workers doing the same thing. Enough of this way of operating over time and people become exhausted, disengaged, which is where most of the American workforce was up until the recent emergence of the COVID- 19 crisis. Exhausted, disengaged but secure.

So here we are, back at a state of shared peril, no longer so secure but at least citizens are demonstrating that they know a little something about collaboration. As you have no doubt witnessed, the elected Federal officials, so long dead locked around not letting each other win, are demonstrating a lack of understanding, talent, muscle memory or ability to assess the consequences of a failure to collaborate. They seem ill equipped to address the current needs of the nation. Hopefully they snap out of their malaise soon, but personally I am counting on the bare minimum. I am more concerned about what comes next. These first few days of social distancing and self-quarantine have had an element of novelty to them. People, while concerned are behaving themselves, both inside and away from work. That may well change shortly if this state of emergency drags on for weeks and possibly months. The full extent of the crisis is still not visible to everyone, save for possibly a shortage of toilet paper, (Who knew?) and if the government continues to be slow to respond, bad behavior may soon displace the good will that now seems to be fairly pervasive.

As employers it is not our role to be social workers. One of the most salient facts of American life is that many people, likely not visible to you, live paycheck to paycheck. They will be the first and probably most dramatically effected by layoffs and shortages of essential items. Some of these people, likely not most, are people who work for you. It does not fall to you to support these people financially through the current crisis. You can do what you can but remember that this crisis will end and people, yourself included, will need a place to go back to work. Whatever you can do I trust you to do that without regard to ever being fully compensated but do not create a condition of dependency on the part of your employees.

What you can do is care, you can create an emergency response team in your organization that is responsible for seeing to it that your employees know you are concerned for their welfare. You can communicate, daily if need be, to make sure your employees, whether working or furloughed have information regarding resources they can avail themselves of.

What about that long overdue change I referred to in the opening paragraph? I think I’ll let Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics speak to the changes that need to be coming. The song’s final two verses sum it up nicely

There ain’t no room

For the hopeless sinner

Who would hurt all mankind

Just to save his own

Have pity on those

Whose chances are thinner

‘Cause there’s no hiding place

From the kingdom’s throne

You may not agree but the handwriting is there for all to see.

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