Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University
All the lonely people; where do they all belong?
– The Beatles
Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SOPK) is a system made up of four interrelated components: Appreciation for Systems, Psychology, Variation, and Theory of Knowledge. Each of these parts impacts and is impacted by the other, which is why it is a “system” of profound knowledge. Yet, in any system, the parts are not always perfectly in balance, nor should they be. In fact, Dr. Eli Goldratt, in his book The Goal, writes that it can be inefficient and ineffective for a system to be completely balanced. Systems should be “balanced” based on the desired aim of the system, meaning that sometimes some parts of any system may require more attention and others less. It is through “balancing” the parts of the system, in other words balancing how the parts interact, that we can be most effective as leaders.
In April of 2020, I had the opportunity to author a blog for The Deming Institute entitled, “Systemically Non-Systemic: COVID-19 through the Deming Lens” In it, I examined COVID through the lens of an “appreciation for systems,” offering thoughts about the nature of our interconnectedness as humans relative to the spread of COVID. I offered that our system of relationships as humans is a perfect structure to transmit COVID or any other communicable diseases. Further, I shared for consideration that, short of a vaccine, the only way to mitigate COVID’s spread is by breaking our physical connections – our physical system-ness – through social distancing and the wearing of masks.
But examining COVID-19 through the systems lens alone is not enough, for we now know that in addition to the physical illness itself and the “system-ness” of the spread, there are other consequences that are growing with each passing day. The aim of this paper is to focus attention on psychology, giving it a bit more attention at this point over the other components of SOPK. This is not intended as an exhaustive examination of psychology and mental health related to COVID, for I am not an expert in either psychology or mental health. Rather it is a snapshot, a “ten-thousand foot” overview accompanied by some thoughts about how to mitigate COVID’s psychological and emotional impact.
While social distancing is a strategy to reduce the spread of COVID, it comes with consequences. These consequences have to do with the mental and emotional toll this separation can take on us as members of the human race, a species that succeeded over time because of its ability to work collectively for the good of all. As I wrote in my April paper, we are the product of thousands of generations who cooperated with one another and “won out in the harsh struggle for existence, while our more self-interested cousins in the distant past failed to cooperate and died out as a result” (Buchanan, p. 134).
So, what might happen to us as people, who are “wired,” either socially or biologically, for social connection when we are cut off from one another? In other words, “What is the psychological impact of this separation and isolation?”
On August 21, 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reported that “53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the worry and stress over the coronavirus.” This was an increase of 21 percentage points from what was reported in March, 2020. The article goes on to explain that research links social isolation to poor mental and physical health and increased anxiety. COVID, like many other epidemics, has “been shown to induce general stress” (KFF), across the general population. Additionally, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been a rise in unfavorable mental health issues, substance use, and suicidal ideation reported by adults in the United States in June 2020. The CDC goes on to report, “The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%).” It is clear that COVID is having a direct and devastating impact on mental health in the United States, and it would be a fair assumption that we all know someone who is experiencing increased emotional distress as a result of COVID; and one of those “someones” may be ourselves.
While not to minimize its impact on us right now, the expression of mental and emotional health concerns during COVID related to social isolation may be a magnified expression of the impact of disconnectedness and social isolation that may occur in organizations during so-called “normal” times. In other words, fragmentation, isolation, and non-imposed social distancing may also exist in our organizations during non-COVID times, resulting in the same mental health concerns, but perhaps not on the same scale as COVID has produced. In a report by Cigna Insurance, a global health services company, entitled Loneliness and the Workplace 2020, 41% of men and 29% of working women reported feeling lonely in their workplace. According to Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, an analysis of one of their surveys concluded that “Loneliness is increasing across the United States and that people who are lonely are less engaged at work and feel less productive at work.” Magnify this “typical” loneliness that exists in the workplace by the isolation that is a result of COVID and we have a recipe for disaster relative to mental health. It seems the Beatles were prophetic in their 1966 song “Eleanor Rigby,” in which they penned the lyrics, “Ah, look at all the lonely people…”
COVID’s impact on mental health is not a simple problem. Looking at it through the systems lens, there are many interrelated factors contributing to the situation. There is no one answer to the situation, although an effective and readily available COVID vaccine would certainly be a great place to begin. However, while the vaccine would address our physical health, it would not mitigate the mental health issues that have erupted or address the overall concern about isolation and loneliness in the workplace, as identified by CIGNA. Perhaps COVID can be the impetus for us to examine and address loneliness and its consequential lack of engagement in the workplace. To that end, I would like to offer ONE way to think about the issue and offer ONE strategy to address it.
In his seminal work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey’s Habit 5, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood” offers a reasonable conceptual framework through which to view and address the problem. Seeking first to understand requires individuals to first listen to others. Dr. Covey tells us that being listened to and understood is like “psychological air” and offers five levels of listening. The fifth, “empathic listening” is the level that is most appropriate for this conversation, for
When we empathically listen, we immerse ourselves in understanding how the other person is thinking and feeling. We actively push our own perspective out of our mind and heart and instead try to walk with them, see as they see and feel as they feel” (https://www.englandlogistics.com/the-levels-of-listening/).
While empathetic listening has great value and provides “psychological air,” following through on and acting on expressed needs when possible might be even more powerful for it sends a clear message that “Not only did I hear you, but I am acting on what I heard.”
One method for doing just that – listening with empathy and taking action based on the feedback – is “Rounding for Outcomes.” Rounding is not a new concept, although there are likely numerous perspectives on what it means and how it is actionized. In the 1970’s, Hewlett-Packard developed the practice of “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA). This process consisted of “managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Management_by_wandering_around). However, Dr. Deming believed that “Management by walking around” is hardly ever effective either. The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about what questions to ask, and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer”(Orsini, J., 2013, p. 18).
Rounding, specifically Studer Education’s “rounding for outcomes,” is a tactic used to increase employee engagement and build relationships. Through this process leaders
…get to know them (employees), what they like, what they relate to, the people who are most important to them, and other things that define employees as individuals. When leaders round, they recognize employees’ needs, which are to feel cared for, to develop their skills through training, and to have the resources they need to do their jobs. (https://www.studereducation.com/leader-rounding-important-tactic/)
Leader rounding, one of Studer Education’s “always behaviors,” is a systematic approach in which leaders meet regularly with direct reports and ask the following four questions:
- What’s working well?
- Are there any individuals who have been especially helpful to you whom I could recognize?
- Do you have the resources to do your job?
- Is there anything that we could do better?
(Studer and Pilcher, 2013, p. 209)
During these rounding conversations, leaders take notes, capturing information that includes requests for actions. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on questions three and four (“Do you have the resources to do your job?” and “Is there anything that we can do better?”), for they are a call to action for leaders. To demonstrate transparency and accountability, leaders take action on responses to these questions and follow up by creating what is known as a “stoplight report.” The stoplight report, updated regularly and shared publicly with the entire staff, includes three color-coded columns based on the feedback received from questions three and four during rounding visits:
Green: These are items from the rounding conversations that have already been addressed by leadership.
Yellow: These are items from the rounding conversations that are still in progress.
Red: These are items from the rounding conversations that cannot be addressed and includes supporting rationale.
Studer Education’s “rounding for outcomes” process, has many benefits including:
- Demonstrating to employees that they are valued
- Increasing staff engagement, which correlates with quality outcomes
- Communicating an openness to “listen to understand”
With these benefits, along with others, “rounding for outcomes” is one method leaders can deploy that addresses isolation and loneliness and the feeling that “no one is listening/no one cares.” It operationalizes Dr. Covey’s habit of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” and provides the “psychological air” that we desire as human beings. While many strategies may exist for acknowledging people, “rounding for outcomes” also provides a systematic method for listening and acting on the things that are important to people in our organizations.
One of my favorite movies is 2009’s Avatar. In this movie, the Na’vi, the native inhabitants of the alien world Pandora, greet one another in a very unique way. They say, “I see you.” This not only means that they see the physical presence of another, but that, “I see who you are; I see and acknowledge that you exist.” This is similar to the phrase “Sawu bona” from the tribes in Northern Natal in South Africa, that literally translates to, “I see you, you are important to me, and I value you.” Both of these greetings, “I see you” and “Sawu bona” communicate the existence, validation and acceptance of others. These are sentiments leaders can and, given our situation today, must convey to those they lead.
Finally, in the Beatles famous song “Eleanor Rigby” two questions are posed:
- All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
- All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
During this time of COVID-driven isolation and loneliness, and the accompanying challenges to mental health, answering the second rather than the first question may be paramount. Finding and operationalizing systematic methods to help people belong and recognize their sense of belonging – even after COVID is over – may be more important than ever for leaders to address.
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