Pandemic Panic: Why Are Senior Managers More Immune?

August 24, 2020


A person’s resilience is generally impacted by uncertainty, lack of control, stress, and anxiety. It is likely that every person on this planet has one or more of these emotions in the past five months. The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant increases in all of these factors. With all this happening, one would expect to see a decline in resilience. We created an assessment to measure resiliency in leaders and had found the results to be quite compelling. While it is true that there has been a decline in resilience for some groups, for other groups, our initial data indicates a slight increase. Our pre-pandemic data comes from 3,356 people and our pandemic data is based on 620 assessments. While these are not huge numbers, they do represent global samples and portray some interesting trends.

In the assessment, resilience was measured using 15 predictive items, in which scores ranged from -15 (low resilience) to +15 (high resilience). The graphs below compare the percentile scores for the resilience of males and females and compare top managers’ and individual contributors’ resilience scores. As the graphs indicate, the percentage of males who rated themselves as resilient in the pandemic increased, while females showed a slight decline. Top managers showed an increase in the pandemic, but individual contributors declined.


What is the reality of the situation today?

The pandemic has caused a global recession, unemployment has increased significantly, and profits for most organizations are down dramatically. It is not clear yet when a vaccine will be available to create immunity from this virus. In many parts of the world, the number of cases of people getting sick and dying is increasing.

Considering these facts, it is easy to see why resilience would decline, but it is more difficult to understand an increase. Possible explanations for the increase include:

·       the negativity of the situation causes many people to try harder,

·       some people rise to a challenge, a stretch goal

·       challenges bring out the sense of duty and responsibility to colleagues and to the organization

·       to be more determined or to go into a state of denial. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

As the graphs above suggest, this response is more likely to occur when you are in a senior management position. The danger in this situation is that those people whose resilience increases may not understand what is going on with the people in the organization who are not like them. Obviously, a group of people in the organization for whom increasing resilience, has no logic—it feels like these people are merely denying reality.

Is Resilience an Asset or a Liability?

The determination to push back when life is difficult and find a way to succeed even in the face of problems is a wonderful trait. The ability to remain positive in the face of challenging times is an extremely valuable behavior. Much is being written in the current press about steps people can take to maintain mental health during times like these. Working from home can create serious stress.

Our recommendations for those with high resilience:

1.     Realize that you are unusual. As an example of how different you are, only 32% of top management selected the statement, “My approach to work is to do a good job at work and have a life outside of work” compared to 63% of individual contributors. For many in top management, their life is their work, but for individual contributors, many have additional obligations, interests and responsibilities outside of work.

In another example, 58% of individual contributors selected, “The words that best describe me are cautious and careful,” while only 30% of top managers selected that same option. 70% of the top managers selected, “Adventurous and risk-taking.” 52% of senior managers agreed with the statement, “I do not worry much or have a lot of anxiety,” while only 34% of individual contributors agreed with that statement.

2.     Be empathetic with those who are experiencing feelings of distress, fear, anxiety, and alarm. Above all, listen to them. Don’t argue with or deny their feelings. Share your reasons for being optimistic, do it matter-of-factly, and share a different perspective, but not with a hard-sell approach of wanting to change their minds.

Those in denial have a difficult time seeing the world from another person’s perspective. Those who are resilient have a motto, “We will overcome all these problems,” while the less resilient say to themselves, “How do I deal with these problems today that are having a real negative impact?” The “suck it up” and “stop being a wimp” messaging can create a significant gap separating the two groups and creating additional conflict when empathy is needed.

3.     Most top managers feel a great need to provide their employees with more encouragement, inspiration, and positive news. That is helpful and often appreciated, but in addition to the positive talk, it would help if these managers practiced listening. They should reach out to check in with individual contributors to learn what they are experiencing and the impact it is having on them and their families. Top managers should realize that many people have been adversely impacted by this pandemic and need help in looking for relief.

The panic is affecting us all in different ways. While we are all in this together, each one of us is grieving different losses. I am an optimistic person, and I try not to let outside influences bother me. About a month into the pandemic, my sweet (sometimes pessimistic) wife expressed that my eternal optimism made her feel like I wasn’t taking the situation seriously enough. My approach was not empathetic enough and I realized that I needed to listen more to her fears rather than say, “everything will be fine.” It is important for leaders to be strong and resilient right now, but they also need to see the situation from differing perspectives.

To learn more and sharpen your leadership skills register for our upcoming webinar, or take our 8-minute strengths assessment.

Joe Folkman