How Leaders Help People Find Real Hope in the Face of a Pandemic
Like many leaders, my clients are scrambling to adapt to this new “virtual reality” of uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. And now physical distancing will continue through the end of April. In the face of not knowing how best to communicate with their people—what to say, how to say it, when to say it—they are grasping at straws. Afraid of saying the wrong thing and making people more anxious, leaders are tripping over their words and intentions, missing the one thing their people want most: hope.
This past week, one client lamented, “I just don’t want to give people false hope.”
“And nor should you,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t help them find real hope.”
As we explored his concerns, I detected a pattern I’d seen among many leaders I’ve coached in past weeks—a genuine misunderstanding of what hope is.
So, let me start by talking about what hope is not. It’s hope’s counterfeits that create false hope, and we are wise to avoid them.
Hope does not come from making guarantees or promises, especially those you can’t keep. Many leaders, failing to manage their own anxiety, reflexively make commitments with the intention of offering people reassurance. In the face of dire economic uncertainty, layoffs, and swirling cyclones of conflicting information, people are fearful, and leaders understandably want to allay those fears. Reasonable leaders know that making promises you later break is cruel under these conditions. Trying to be measured, leaders instead say things like, “I wish I could tell you when this was all going to end,” or “This is the best information I have right now,” and some even attempt presumptuous empathy with statements like, “I know how stressful this must be.” But efforts to balance restraint and comfort can have the unintended consequence of missing the perfect opportunity to offer hope.
Hope is not mere positivity that eliminates fear and anxiety. Born of a genuine sense of compassion, leaders want to quell people’s negative emotions. But they know that just layering “positive emotions” on top of them could make things worse. Positivity is not hope, and when leaders misuse optimism, they appear out of touch, insincere, and aloof. Unfortunately, to avoid looking Pollyannaish, or worse, condescending, leaders are just sticking to the facts, curbing the very humanity that is their greatest source of hope.
Most people recognize that in the face of such unprecedented crisis, leaders know little, can’t make promises, and certainly can’t inspire optimism with the wave of a magic wand. What people long for, at their core, is to know that despite all of the unknown, they are going to be okay. Leaders can’t tell people, “Our company will be fine, you will definitely keep your job, and your loved one who tested positive for the virus will recover.” But what people want to, need to, believe, is that whatever the outcomes of those uncertainties, they will survive and—eventually—be okay. History has proven this time and again.
And that’s what hope provides. However, it isn’t something you can give people, (that’s not your job). But it is something you can help people discover (and that is your job).
Hope is created at the intersections of passion (a desire for something vital), perseverance (the need to prevail against great odds, and faith (the belief that there could be something greater beyond those odds). When a leader, organization, or even country feels like it’s facing its darkest days, like we are today, hope is what gets people through them. And while leaders can’t give hope as if it were a pill or create a “click-here-for-hope” icon, what they can do is create the safe conditions in which people can discover it for themselves.
Hope is not allegorical or “squishy.” And it’s proven to be a fundamental need to humans in times of crisis. In Sweden, asylum-seeking refugee children contract what doctors call “resignation syndrome,” a self-induced coma to help them cope with a dire lack of hope. Research has shown that individuals with a higher capacity for hope are more motivated to achieve their goals than those with low hope. They found that high-hope individuals had higher overall job performance, satisfaction, and tenacity, suggesting that hopefulness can help employees when they encounter obstacles.
Clearly, when faced with dire conditions, we crave hope at a fundamental level because it is crucial to surviving seasons like this one. Hope isn’t the alleviation of fearful risk, or the sidelining of anxiety. It’s the choice to see beyond the current circumstances to something better despite the presence of those feelings.
So, what can leaders do to help people discover hope in the days ahead?
First, find out what monster you’re fighting. Each person is metabolizing this pandemic in personal ways. If their hope is flagging because of fears, doubts, and uncertainties, the origins of lost hope will be distinct to them. Some people you lead may already be showing signs of withdrawal or apathy—signals they are craving hope. And rest assured, in the face of isolation from physical distancing, those monsters in our heads become even more ferocious. For some, the usual suspects of economic uncertainty and job security are the main culprits. But even beneath those common monsters lie unique breeds of fear—am I employable? How’s my network? For others, it’s their health or that of a loved one. Still for others, it’s the chronic sadness that comes from seeing so much panic and pain around them. Every person’s blueprint for processing this crisis is specific to them.
In safe settings, I’ve found that asking people to name their worst nightmares, looking right into the eyes of the monster, helps disarm their power. “Tell me about the horror reel looping in your mind at night when you can’t sleep.” What I often hear are scenes far more tragic than are likely to ever play out in reality. When I ask how likely they feel that scenario to be, they often pause and say things like, “I guess not very likely.” Naming the monster in the presence of a trusted friend or leader can help reduce its outsized power over our perspective.
Then, help people realize they are stronger than the monsters. What paralyzes many people during perilous uncertainty isn’t the catastrophes they concoct in their head—it’s the fear of succumbing to those catastrophes. When we panic, the brain can shift into what neuroscientists call “amygdala hijack,” a protection mechanism that leads to our fight, flight, or freeze response. Our decision-making and judgment capacities become momentarily impaired. Our catastrophizing turns current circumstances into a permanent reality and imminent threat.
During a recent conversation, I asked a leader what the worst thing she’d ever survived was. It was horrific. Far worse than the worst-case scenario she’d conceived for the pandemic. This revealed two important pieces of information. First, she was processing her current fear through the lens of past experiences, a natural byproduct of suffering traumatic events. For example, if someone has endured being laid off, they may well fear suffering a lay off followed by losing their home now. Second, she was failing to recognize that she had a storehouse of resilience to tap into. She’d come through her past misfortune, by her own account, stronger and better. She needed to (re)discover that she was capable of persevering through life’s setbacks. Feeling no control over a situation sets the stage for lost hope. These first two steps help restore a sense of lost control by bringing into focus what one can control, opening the door for hope to emerge.
Now, you can show empathy. Having listened to someone’s worst nightmares, helping them tap into forgotten reserves of resilience, you have earned your right to offer empathy. Acknowledge their anxiety and grief as legitimate. For many, the cancellation of weddings, graduations, proms, and major life moments, or the inability to hold funerals to mourn lost loved ones, creates heartbreaking grief. For others, the change to working from home, the loss of routine and connection, and the fear of personal financial hardship can be debilitating. Many don’t have safe places to process these emotions. Of course, never compare your pain and don’t say, “Well, at least it’s not….” Empathy simply lets people know you genuinely understand and care without having to “fix things.” Talk vulnerably about why you have hope despite your fear. Having listened to them first, your concern will be more welcomed and experienced with the love and kindness you intend.
Use evidence judiciously. While facts are rarely strong enough to counter raging emotions, sometimes they can help. The fact that China and South Korea are showing signs of recovery—travel bans starting to lift and people returning to work—can offer some encouragement that the conditions we’re facing, while painful, are not permanent.
Beyond facts about managing the virus itself, I have also found the real-time examples of creative generosity, staunch resilience, inspiring artistry, and sacrificial bravery of our medical professionals, to offer remarkable sources of disconfirming data to the apocalyptic-like predictions of an oncoming Armageddon. (Here’s an entire collection gathered in one place! The virtual “What the World Needs Now” choir gets me every time. And don’t miss those Italian 12-year-old twins crushing it on the violins!) The incredible examples of global collaborations among the scientific community and the ingenuity of numerous inventors to find innovative ways to create needed medical equipment like ventilators, all serve as evidence of our capacity to more than survive this crisis. From all corners of the earth, this pandemic has revealed humanity at our best, combating a pandemic virus with a pandemic of compassion. These are powerful sources of hope.
Model and invite gratitude. Finally, having set conditions for discovering real hope, you can help people anchor that hope with what we know to be a sustaining force—gratitude. In their book, Leading with Gratitude, Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick offer profound, yet practical ways for leaders to inspire others through gratitude. Science tells us that gratitude produces a sense of well-being, purpose, and yes, hope, when we use it to regain lost perspective. Tell people about what you are grateful for. Most importantly, tell them you are grateful for the courage they are showing amidst their fears, and for being honest with you about those fears.
Blame, outrage, and unhelpful politicizing of this crisis all thrive in environments of panic, perpetuating hopelessness. Gratitude helps divert such toxic emotions by reminding people that their lives still hold sources of joy for which they are genuinely grateful. Allowing people to verbalize those joys in the presence of your shared delight helps solidify their power to sustain hope.
Hope would not be the powerful force that it is if it were chosen only when a reason to do so was obvious. The true power of hope lies in uncovering and choosing it when everything suggests doing otherwise—when chronic uncertainty feels like the “new normal” for the world.
In the face of unspeakable challenges in the days ahead, one of the greatest gifts you can give those you lead, and those you love, is the invitation to discover hope. It won’t appear on its own, especially for the most fragile among us. Take the time to sit with them, and together, excavate what may be the most vital resource they need to weather this storm. I hope you will.
Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.
This post was reprinted with permission from Forbes.