Some COVID-19 Lessons About Perception, Empathy and Decision-Making

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed much about who we are, our resources, our strengths and limitations. We will be dissecting our responses for years to come and hopefully, doing some profound “lessons learned” analysis nationally and globally. Many of us are reflecting on what our reactions, individually and collectively, have exposed thus far. I’ve observed two things in our everyday lives that have been magnified by this crisis: how we receive and interpret data; and, the role empathy plays in decision making.

Initially, where people turned for information impacted their perception of this situation. The news outlets reported different interpretations of how COVID-19 was unfolding abroad and what the potential impact would be here in the U.S.  In 2020 people have broad access to diverse information being dispersed with a wide variety of agendas, research, and expertise behind it.  To stay responsibly informed these days means not just to read the paper or watch the news but to do so from a variety of sources. Those of us who have jobs that involve research or interpretation, must be especially vigilant about the diversity of resources we use to arrive at our conclusions.

Once we all see the same data, the confusion does not end. In the earlier days of the COVID-19 outbreak, I talked to and heard many people greatly comforted in hearing the death rate was only about 1% (the true number is yet to be determined). Others heard this information and asked, but how contagious is it?– 1% of what? Similarly, many were comforted to learn that for the majority of the population the manifestation would be like a regular flu or something even milder. Others saw this fact as one of the core dangers; something that is mild to most and deadly to a few is harder to identify, track and contain.

It’s like the famous drawing that some viewers see as an old lady looking down while others see a young lady looking away. Same picture, different perceptions. As horror stories emerged of overworked doctors and nurses having to turn away people who needed treatment, there were some who thought “this is a thing happening way over there” and some who thought, “this is a thing about to happen here.” It is tempting to focus on who was right and who was wrong, and in certain instances that is appropriate. But we must also remember that people will always see and react to things differently. This morning my brother shared a statistic he heard about the percentage of people likely to be infected and the death rate compared to other outbreaks. My response was, “That is terrifying!” He replied, “Really? How do you not see that as comforting?” This crisis is a reminder of how important it is both that our teams and organizations consist of people with true expertise, and also with a range of experience and ways of seeing and interpreting the world around them. We must have multiple and diverse perspectives to arrive at the most responsible decisions and to understand how best to communicate them.

There is no shortage of research and discussion about the important role of empathy in effective leadership. I’m not going to talk about that. There are enough people focusing on leadership or the lack thereof through this crisis. The opportunity here is to reflect on our own processing over the course of the past weeks and the extent to which empathy has played a role in the personal decisions we make. If we learned we were of a group that would be minimally impacted if we caught this virus, did we breathe a sigh of relief and move on? Have we been curious about people’s experiences around the world beyond how those experiences might impact us personally?  It seems the tipping point in a collective understanding of our individual responsibility came with the “flatten the curve” graphics and messaging. (An important lesson in the necessity of clear, impactful communication.)  The picture of overwhelmed hospitals with medical workers and patients not having enough protective gear, respirators and oxygen, broke through and struck an empathetic chord that reverberated and spread. Even now, some people are having trouble making individual sacrifices because they don’t feel this situation as a threat. There are, of course, multiple reasons for the choices people are making, but there is no doubt that empathy, the ability to sense or imagine someone else’s experience or feelings, plays a crucial role in our ability to understand this crisis and make sacrifices to protect each other. COVID-19 has reminded us how connected we are and how our individual decision making often has broad impact. As we consider the decisions we make for our teams, businesses and customers, we can reflect on this example of the role empathy plays in our ability to perceive complex situations and make sound decisions.

A couple weeks ago the guy sitting in front of me on my flight was watching FOX news. Seven minutes later he tuned into MSNBC. The next time I looked up it was CNN. “Good for you,” I thought. There are not many of us with the disciplined curiosity to take in information so broadly. Even if we have no respect for one of these sources, there’s great value in understanding what others are hearing and how they are arriving at their perspectives. Even when seeing the same thing, even when the expert shows us the data, we humans will always interpret things differently. We must actively seek out those varying perspectives so we can help each other towards a common picture or goal that will enable us to think beyond ourselves and our own frameworks to make thoughtful, broadly informed decisions how to move forward. Then we do our best, which sometimes, will be enough.

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