I have spent most of my career studying how expatriates and immigrants make sense of new, foreign environments. When moving to a new country, individuals are suddenly confronted with a society that works by different rules. Their ability to understand situations is compromised because what they believe to be "normal" is no longer the norm, which then prompts a process of sensemaking. In these novel situations, the skills to succeed, connect, make friends, and conduct business are often different and require a new way of thinking and behaving.
This scenario is not unlike what most of us are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented measures taken by governments around the world to curb the spread of the virus require individuals to change highly habitual behaviors. Some people need to learn to work from home and connect with others virtually, while others need to reconsider their careers and lifestyle as their jobs disappear or their businesses struggle to survive.
The process of making sense of new environments is closely connected with our identity and highly influenced by the people around us and the narratives to which we are exposed. Based on this research, I identify a few lessons that may help individuals better adjust to the changes resulting from the current pandemic, as well as to help organizations better support their employees and clients.
The ways we understand the world around us are fundamentally linked to how we see ourselves. As we grapple to make sense of changes in our surroundings, we need not only to modify our behavior to adjust to the new reality, but also to reconsider our identities. And, as we adapt, and re-evaluate our identities, this in turn influences how we feel about the situation, the decisions we make, and ultimately, the actions we take. For example, if I think of myself as a caring teacher that builds personal connections with my students through free-flowing discussions and informal conversations, what does online teaching mean to my identity as a caring teacher? How can I rethink myself as a teacher in ways that will allow me to move forward and maintain these principles that I value? How I answer these questions will influence my acceptance of the new teaching environment and the actions I take.
It would be an oversight by organizations to ignore the effect that this pandemic is having on workers’ identity and their abilities to process change. As the world navigates through the ensuing COVID-19 crisis—and once we are on the other side of this—it is essential that organizations and leaders take the time to help their employees (and society at large) to work through issues in order to come to terms with these major changes. This is particularly true for changes that will have a long-term impact as jobs disappear or are significantly restructured.
When individuals are unable to make sense of a new situation, they rely on others deemed more experienced or knowledgeable to help guide their interpretation of what is happening and how their skills and value are perceived. People in a position of influence over others (managers, teachers, politicians, experts, celebrities) can have a significant impact on how individuals make sense, cope, and act in situations of uncertainty by providing them with cues about their role in the new situation. And so, as we interact with others through our professional roles, it is crucial to be mindful of the messages we are sending. These messages are not only about the external situation (e.g., how the pandemic is affecting the organization), but also about how each person is valued and treated within this new and evolving reality.
Moreover, the pandemic has raised our awareness of the importance of some occupational groups (e.g., frontline personnel) while other occupations may be overlooked (e.g., wait staff). As some of us feel pressed to attend to multiple demands, it is sometimes tempting to focus on what needs to be done, ignoring our role in supporting others through this transition. Pause and consider: have you failed to recognize anyone that needs your support in finding their role through this transition?
As we grapple to make sense of what is happening around us and our responses to these changes, we seek input, not only from others we trust, but also from society at large through “master narratives”. Master narratives are shared cultural scripts that tell us how to be good members of society. They are the stories we share and read on various media outlets that tell us what is expected of us. During this coronavirus crisis, people’s experiences can vary significantly: some live alone and are feeling isolated; others are finding themselves in a crowded home and crave solitude; some are unable to work and do not know what to do with their time; others are juggling a full work schedule with home responsibilities. As some narratives become popular (e.g., “Reach out and connect, “ or “Take advantage of this time to learn a new skill.”), those that feel these emerging master narratives do not resonate with them, or are unattainable, may feel excluded. Thus, it is vital to consider all perspectives and give all segments of society a voice when constructing these master narratives so that they contribute towards a more inclusive society—not only now, but as we enter a post-pandemic world.
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