COVID-19: What next? Who knows? Living with uncertainty

June 26, 2020

So here we are, tentatively venturing back out into the world and wondering what life will be like. There is no shortage of commentators predicting the business, societal and political changes which will result from the pandemic. I am not one of them. What I want to look at is how we handle the level of uncertainty we are facing. Here are six observations.

1. Predictability vs uncertainty

One of the overlooked aspects of the pandemic is the weird juxtaposition of massive uncertainty alongside monotonous predictability. On the one hand, you know what your days are going to look like – Zoom calls, walk, dinner, Netflix. Repeat. Take away on Saturday to mix it up a bit. On the other hand, we don’t really know what life will be like in 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years. Many of us are longing for some kind of change and simultaneously nervous about what the future may hold.

I don’t think we’re used to dealing with this level of boredom and dread at the same time. It’s one of the reasons why you may be finding the situation tougher than you expected. If that’s the case, I refer you back to last month’s blog on self-compassion.


2. This is multi-layered and complex

It is difficult to keep track of the many levels of uncertainty we face. Here are some:

  • The pandemic Will there be a second wave? When will there be a vaccine? How do we accurately assess risk?
  • Emotions What has three months of suspended animation done to our mental health, our relationships, our children? Are we becoming more compassionate or more judgemental?
  • Economy How bad will the inevitable recession be? Which regions and sectors will be worst hit? Where will the money go?
  • Workplace What will the socially distanced workplace be like? How much remote or flexible working will carry on? Is this the demise of the traditional office?
  • Politics Brexit hasn’t gone away and neither have the divisions in society exposed, exploited and amplified since the referendum. Will the pandemic draw us together or exacerbate those divisions?
  • Social change Will the collective pause cause us to reconsider what we value? Will the tension between generations grow in response to a crisis where the old are most likely to die and the young are most affected financially?
  • Geo-political factors Will countries work together to combat the virus or become more isolationist? Will there be shifts in alliances? Will economic instability push countries into civil unrest or war?
  • Technology/innovation Technology got us through this and is likely to be part of how we get out of it. What advances in technology might be accelerated by the crisis? What might we accept and then live to regret (e.g. surveillance technology)?
  • Environment Will the pandemic make us re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world?

These issues overlap in both predictable and unexpected ways. For example, we know that the pressure to kick start the economy by buying loads of stuff conflicts with the needs of the environment. It has been slightly surprising to find that responses to the pandemic have sometimes polarised along tribal lines aligned with the entirely unrelated issue of Brexit.

I don’t believe anyone can keep track of all these layers to create a cohesive comprehensive picture. That doesn’t mean that perspectives on individual aspects aren’t valid but there is always a bigger picture.


3. It’s OK to not know

Most of us like to feel that we know what is going on. Feeling ignorant or ill-informed can carry a sense of shame, particularly if you pride yourself on being knowledgeable. But when we’re in uncharted territory, it is difficult even to know what to pay attention to. I think it takes a certain wisdom to say “I don’t know”. It’s also worth considering what it is that you might ‘know’. There are facts, interpretations of facts and predictions. Only the first of these can be really known (and even then it’s frequently disputed). Interpretations and predictions are subjective. Don’t get over attached to them (yours or other people’s).

Not knowing can also be anxiety-provoking. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the uncertainty of it all, it can help to bring yourself back to the here and now. Can you take control of what happens today – or just in the next hour? Mindfulness exercises can be useful here.


4. Broader perspectives help

We all see the world through the particular filter of our own experience. I could talk about the pandemic through the lens of individual behaviour – tolerance for working from home, perceptions of risk, willingness to conform with regulations, levels of anxiety, etc. This is perfectly valid, but a very long way from the whole picture. Now more than ever, I’m interested in what economists, business investors, sociologists, historians and political thinkers have to say.

I’m also trying to be interested in the perspective of people with whom I profoundly disagree. I may not like Katie Hopkins’ opinions but I can’t pretend that her worldview doesn’t exist. The wider your perspective, the less likely you are to get stuck in a narrow groove of thinking, which could cause you to miss trends, threats and opportunities.


5. Chart a path but stay nimble

While it’s good to have a broad perspective, at some point you have to make decisions, whether that’s in your own life – how will you know when it’s safe to get on a plane? – or your business. This is particularly relevant for leaders who need to steer an organisation into the unknown.

Work out what you need to know to make a reasonably informed decision. List out your known knowns and your known unknowns (If you’ve broadened your perspective you may face fewer of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous unknown unknowns). Can you work with less information than normal? How many of the blanks can you fill in? For example, you probably already know your current financial position, you may be able to find out quite quickly how your staff feel about returning to the office, but you may need to wait to find out about trends in particular markets or the intentions of key clients. Document your assumptions and make a note of when you’re going to review them. It’s too easy for assumptions to morph into accepted orthodoxy if you don’t revisit them.


6. This may be your catalyst for change

The discussion so far has all been about responding to an uncertain world. But a world in flux is also an opportunity to create or accelerate change. Wars, pandemics and other major crises have historically been catalysts for change. When people have seen that normal life can be disrupted overnight, then other changes become easier to imagine. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement has gained particular momentum now. Society is changing, why not shape that change?

So whether it’s flexible working, equality of opportunity, social justice, environmentalism, ethical capitalism or whatever, if you have a change you want to see, seize your moment. Start talking about an alternative vision now, before people settle back into familiar grooves. Get ideas from others and seek unlikely allies. If you want inspiration on the latter, look at the improbable alliance between gay activists and the traditionally macho National Union of Mineworkers during the 1980s miners’ strike, which eventually led to union and Labour party backing for gay rights. (You could read about it but it’s far more fun to watch the incredibly uplifting film, Pride). Incidentally, if you flinch at either striking miners or gay activists, remember so did they. If you don’t flinch, substitute UKIP members for one of the parties and think again about your willingness to form unlikely alliances.

None of us really knows what is going to happen next. That’s a scary place to be, though at a profound level it is always true. I’m aiming to get through it by working out a broad direction of travel, keeping an open mind and seeking out other perspectives. I have thoughts and ideas about my bit of the picture, psychology and leadership. I’m always interested to talk to people who can give me a totally different perspective on the unfolding new reality. If that sounds like a conversation worth having, do get in touch:

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