Updated: Sep 14
Samuel Lam, Managing Partner, Third Opinion Partners & Linh Ngo, Consultant, Third Opinion Partners
Dark clouds of the global pandemic continue to loom overhead, as the world undergoes the aftermath of the Covid-19 shutdown. Every facet of life has been challenged and disrupted, from economies, businesses to daily commute. Many of us have experienced an emotional roller coaster ride that was beyond our expectations.
For many business leaders worldwide, this period has been particularly daunting to find their footing in navigating through the crisis. What’s more gripping is the fate and future of their businesses, employees and community, which now hinges squarely on their decisions.
As panic permeates the executive suite, leaders are driven by fear into a flight or fight mode. Interestingly, one other response known as the freeze syndrome is rarely discussed. This phenomenon has been observed amongst business leaders in the current pandemic. Many are frozen into slow-motion or inaction due to fears and concerns from the chaos, challenges and uncertainty. Leaders struggle to get to what we call the resolve state.
In this article, we will explore what resolve is and is not, and why getting to resolve is the way to unfreeze and get out of the rut.
Discover The Roots of "Fear-evoked Freezing"
Freeze, Flight or Fight?
All three responses have a neuro-biological foundation that is necessary for human survival. There is a need for each of these responses to threats, depending on the circumstances. And they are reflexes driven by survival instincts.
Fight-or-flight has been widely studied and discussed in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, as well as leadership development. When faced with a challenge or crisis, people tend to judge the situation based on their previous experience and existing skills, then make a quick decision to either fight against the challenge or run away from it.
How about the ‘freeze’ response? Research shows that before deciding to fight or flee, most mammals freeze for a few milliseconds to assess the situation before making the next move. Sometimes staying frozen might be the best defending tactic. However, the freeze response can potentially cause people to become paralysed by fear.
In the recent study published in the Journal of Physiology (2014), neuroscientists at the University of Bristol revealed they have identified a brain pathway that may be the root of the universal freeze response when we are afraid. They discovered “a chain of neural connections stemming from the cerebellum. When activated by a real or imagined threatening stimuli, these neural connections can cause the body to automatically freeze.”
Fear-evoked freezing is a natural reaction of human brain when we are faced with a threatening situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic. When challenged with uncertainty and a lack of information, it is instinctive for our brains to trigger fear and make us ‘freeze’ to wait for more information before we make decisions.
Don’t freeze for too long! We can and we are capable of flexing some cognitive muscles to override this innate neuro-biological response. By recognising our psychological state, taking a few deep breaths in any fearful situation, we can ‘unfreeze’, overcome the fear, and move freely into the ‘resolve’ state to arrive at our decision.
From Unfreeze To Resolve
Resolve is the firm decision to make a decision. It is a moment in time when one decides to not settle for the status quo. Resolve is getting out of the assessment mode and into the transformation mode. It is important to get to resolve because it releases energy and creates the passion needed to discover the pathway for a better future.
- Phil Harkins, Founder & former CEO of Linkage Inc.
Before discussing about Resolve at the current time, let’s go back to what happened from 2007 to 2010 - the 38-month period has been described by many as the worst macroeconomic hardship the world had seen since the Great Depression nearly 80 years prior. In the diagram below that traces this period of time, there was a ten-year run-up with unprecedented GDP growth. It was V-shaped on the way down and on the way up, although a longer recovery period made it almost a U-shape. The way back from the bottom took almost three years – we refer to this as “the painful ride back.” For many, it seemed like the good times would never return. But they did - with winners and losers. The winners were those that found resolve at the right point as shown below.
Making the right business decisions in dramatic downturns requires understanding three types of Economics. The first is macroeconomics - the big picture. It is a reflection of the behaviours of the masses and the public markets keep score.
The second - microeconomics, is the study of the puzzle pieces. For example, what is going to happen to Retail? Will mobility ever be the same? What risk limits will life insurance companies absorb? Will social change result in people saving more and spending less - the rainy-day syndrome?
Behavioural economics, the third type, is the study of human behaviour in decision making within cycles. In drastic downturns, we need to think macro- and micro- with a heavy emphasis on behavioural economics. This requires getting up on the balcony and looking down as if watching a play. When leaders do this exercise, they could clearly see the confusion and worry from above. Some leaders confessed that they were feeling that everything just seemed too risky right now to make big decisions.
Five Behavioural Steps To Stay Ahead
There are five specific behavioural steps that go into decision making to help you stay ahead of the curve. Conversely, putting off decision making keeps you behind. Here are the five steps:
If you are still thinking and studying, you are in the assessment phase. It is likely time for you to get resolve so you can go after possibilities. If you are at resolve, make a decision to look for transformational opportunities. If you are moving without discovery, you might be on dangerous ground and prone to make the wrong decision. Jumping steps, such as moving without resolve can send one back to thinking and studying again - less inclined to ever get to resolve.
Organisations that have followed this successfully in recovering from previous economic crisis include what Andy Grove did at Intel and Lou Gerstner did at IBM. Lou Gerstner tracked these steps well and changed IBM from a mainframe company to the world’s largest professional service company and it took 6.5 years to get there.
Rivals like DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) jumped steps and never got to real resolve. They lost the opportunity to discover and stayed in place hopelessly as the world had changed. 88,000 employees lost their jobs.
Resolve, according the Webster’s Dictionary, is both a noun and a verb. Both definitions state that resolve is a firm determination to do something.
In the current hard times, if you have not moved yet to resolve, it is not too late. It is the most important step! Our recent observations are that leaders tend to spend too much time thinking and studying and remain stuck in the assessment phase. They get trapped in the prolonged fear-driven ‘frozen’ state. As markets come back, they regroup and do very little differently. They have missed the ability to transform and instead, they often settle for incremental improvement - a little bit of change here and there. That is what DEC did that brought them down.
How do leaders know when they need to finish thinking and studying? Our advice is when leaders cannot take it anymore and the heaviness feels like pain, which causes anxiety and stress with a haunting sense of uncertainty, it is time to make a decision to resolve. Usually leaders who have been through hard times before, get that unsettled feeling and know that they are going to miss opportunities to move at the right time.
However, it is important for leaders to recognise and understand what kind of pressures they are under and how changes in their feelings and psychological state might allow common thinking biases to set in and impact their decision making. In a recent article on ‘How to make critical decision amid Covid-19 pressures’ (Strait Times Singapore, July 2020), Professor David Chan from Singapore Management University discussed how behavioural sciences can help us make better decisions by understanding the factors that go into making decisions in difficult times. Two common and significant pressures we face in difficult times identified are ‘Time Pressure’ and ‘Ambivalence Pressure’ – these pressures affect the way we think and feel, which in turn influence our decision-making process.
Time pressure occurs when we have less time available than we think we need to come to a decision. Under time pressure, we tend to narrow our cognitive focus. ‘We zero in on one or two issues that we consider relevant and key. We are less likely to brainstorm ideas, identify possibilities, seek feedback or advice, and consider different viewpoints.’ It is exacerbated by the confirmatory bias or the halo effect. Time pressure also generates negative emotions such as anxiety or anger which push us out of our rational mind to make the best decision.
Ambivalence pressure is described as being torn between A and B because we have mixed feelings about either choice. The experience of mixed feelings and thoughts is a state of internal conflict. ‘When we experience belief or emotional conflict, our dissonance and feelings dominate. This can easily overwhelm and override the rational reasoning’. Again, cognitive biases such as confirmatory bias, halo effect, optimism bias might easily impact our decision.
To help business leaders to get to resolve, we have identified below crucial steps that leaders should take to move forward timely:
Leaders need to ask the core question, “What have we learned on the way down?” and acknowledge that thinking and studying were informative. Write down at least three core learnings that can be applied on the way up.
Put a marker down as to when thinking and studying time is over. Many leaders have reported an exhaustion from thinking and studying the same things over and over again. Avoid over-thinking and over-studying.
In order to activate a feeling of resolve have suggested to leaders to write down resolve postulates. These are assumed truths that will need to be worked out in discovery.
It is important to share resolve with others. Remember at resolve surround yourself with action-oriented people, naysayers can deplete the feeling of resolve.
What does resolve do to you? Resolve releases a powerful overflow of appreciation for the possibilities ahead. It creates a discharge of emotion that lifts the spirit and nourishes the body and mind so that it can entertain choices. Others have reported that it provides more restful sleep and inspires excitement and a positive sense of the future. When a leader gets to resolve, cycles matter less. One leader recently told us, “I’ve had it with this cycle; it is what it is! I’m now preparing to get going.” We knew she had reached resolve, taking charge, and fortifying with a will to find transformational opportunities.
Resolve And Next
Experienced leaders who have been in rapid downturns do not waste a second between resolve and discovery. It is during discovery that transformational opportunities are found. Here are simple steps for help leaders go from Resolve to Discovery transformational opportunities:
Meet with your leadership team to discuss and identify best potential transformational opportunities (as illustrated in below framework).
Use this simple map to organise best opportunities for transforming.
Get agreement from your most trusted colleagues on the best opportunities to go after.
Identify and assign passionate champions (A+ leaders) to build plans and roadmaps.
Appoint an executive sponsor to ensure that the good ideas are not compromised.
The Time Is Now To Find Resolve
Very often in down cycles, hard luck can be good luck. In the time of crisis and uncertainty, at first we may instinctively respond by ‘freeze, flight or fight’, but we should not stay in the ‘freeze’ mode for too long.
We are capable of building our cognitive muscles to unfreeze and make a move. By getting up on ‘the balcony’, a leader can see the big picture. Important points to remember are:
It is okay to spend time thinking and studying on the way down
At the bottom get to resolve
Do not make decisions of what to do. Make the decision to make decisions in discovery
Do not let too much time pass between discovery and moving. When the good ideas have proven to be potentially transformational, get the right people around those transformational opportunities and clear the path so they have nothing in their way. Inspire them to “Play to Win and Refuse to Lose” while questioning all assumptions.
Leaders, do not allow this cycle to hold you back from possibly transforming the way you work and live. You do not want to say at the end of this cycle, “We could have, should have, or would have if only we had moved sooner.”
The time is now to find resolve.
Samuel Lam is Managing Partner of Third Opinion Partners, a global leadership development and organisational development consulting firm. One of the leading practitioners in the field of leadership development in Asia, Sam has created some of the most highly regarded leadership development programs for both Singapore and global clients. He serves as executive coach and adviser to a number of notable CEOs, Boards and senior government officials in Singapore, Europe, and Asia. His major clients included GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, Prudential, AIA, Lenovo, Hasbro, Philips, Disney, CIMB Bank and various branches of the Singapore Government. Sam’s expertise spans several areas of leadership development: executive coaching, executive selection, performance improvement of top teams, development of talent pipelines, and assessment of top talent. He co-authored Linkage Inc.’s Best Practices in Leadership Development Handbook (Second Edition, 2009) with Marshall Goldsmith and David Giber.
Linh Ngo is Consultant and Program Manager at Third Opinion Partners. She has over 10 years of experience in strategic human resource management and talent development both as a human resource practitioner and a consultant.” Her area of expertise lies in designing, developing and executing customised leadership development programs and delivering leadership consulting projects. Some of her major clients include AIA, Deloitte, Hasbro, Lenovo, Maybank, Sime Darby, RHB Bank. As Linh forges ahead, she is in charge of advancing new programs and initiatives in empowering the next generation of leaders.