VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) seemed like fashionable jargon, until it landed uninvited at our doorsteps via Covid-19. With its abrupt and apocalyptic appearance, Covid-19 is a catastrophe that spawned a crisis. Its devastating effects have everyone including decision makers confused, adrift and on edge.
Most of us have little experience in living memory, of coping with epochal turmoil. Our natural predilection is for the predictable, both as individuals and decision makers. Having trained to win, people are unprepared to cope with the prolonged and unfamiliar crisis that follows catastrophe. When the mind believes in the permanence a negative condition, it becomes paralysed. There are numerous examples of poor decision making, due to cognitive bias and decision paralysis.
Crisis is fought and won in the mind ,in an individual capacity or as a leader. Faced with the enormity of such situations, are we left to muddle along or is there a method to manage the mind? Leadership and decision making at such times begs the question-Is there a framework or model that frees us from our cognitive biases and helps us understand and deal with the permanence and negativity of change
An interesting framework that helps put things in perspective is the Kubler-Ross Five Stage model of “Coping with Grief”. Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross propounded a “Grief Cycle” in 1969, in her book “On Death and Dying”. Her study focused on the emotions of terminally ill patients at the Univ. of Chicago medical school. (Note-Dr Ross clarified that the five stages weren’t necessarily linear and reflected "commonly observed behaviours”)
Impending mortality is the ultimate change stress. The ability of a terminal patient to cope with this definitive and irrevocable change is beyond doubt THE benchmark of human emotion. Forged in this crucible of mortal change, Ross’s grief cycle is a helpful framework to deal with unprecedented crisis and catastrophe.
Dr Ross describes five stages of coping or adjustment, popularly expressed in a sine curve. These five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
The process of coping begins with denial, when sudden negative change is “Denied" by the subject. This is characterized by denying irreversible change and its consequences. There are numerous examples of world leaders denying the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the common public blithely thronging to social gatherings and behaving irresponsibly in public places.
Indisputable evidence of the problem then leads to "Anger", where the subject vents her negative emotions on some presumed causal factor or scapegoat. Often the anger is mixed with self-pity: “Why me”? In the case of Covid-19, anger was directed at people of Eastern origin, non-vegetarians, and proponents of globalization, liberals, pharmaceutical companies and governments, among others
The subject then starts "Bargaining" with the situation-“Let me not announce an office shutdown and manage somehow”, “I promise to continue my daily routine safely”, “If I can’t go to work I will lose my job/income” “I might be infected but let me stay at home and try alternate remedies” . In reality, the bargaining is futile and only creates a sense of false optimism.
At this point the permanence of change finally sinks in and leads to "Depression". The mind becomes unbearably sad and hopeless. The symptoms include lack of motivation or enthusiasm, low energy levels and distracted participation. “My business is doomed”, “ I will miss my examinations and my future is ruined”
This is the tipping point for good decision making. Here is where intervention and transformation have to kick in. Delay in recovery can be the difference between good and bad recovery.
Luckily most of us climb out of this abyss of Depression pretty soon. We start seeing the need to move on when we "Accept" the new situation. In the Acceptance phase, we are willing to climb out of the depressing pit, experiment and innovate. At this point, it is important be generous, considerate and lenient with experimentation and mistakes. Given empowering conditions, the acceptance phase can lead to rapid renewal and growth.
The Kubler Ross model is helpful in overcoming negative and destructive change and also helps us identify these symptoms in other . Often times, systems fail to cope with crisis, because decision makers are trapped in the quicksand of denial, depression and cognitive biases. Their failure to rebound and lead purposefully risks entire societies, exposing large populations to chaos. It is imperative for responsible individuals and leaders to address this condition, learn and teach people to cope with negative change and its expected consequences.
So when we go to bed tonight, let us be prepared for tomorrow with acceptance and action, rather than denial and depression.
The writer is a Principal Consultant at Bhavan's SPJIMR.