In earlier blogs, we shared our hypothesis that societies and individuals are more resilient to cope with the COVID-19 crisis when they reconcile opposing values like rules vs. exceptions, top-down vs. bottom-up and being in control vs. being emotional. In this blog we concentrate on being in control vs. going with the flow orientation and how the joining of both can lead to better results.

There is no doubt that mankind universally defines the threat of the coronavirus as a crisis. A crisis is defined as any event that is going to lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community or whole society. According to Matthew Seeger, Timothy Sellnow and Robert Ulmer, a crisis is “unexpected, specific, uncertain and a threat to goals and purpose” and concerns complex systems. All the ingredients of the above are indeed characterizing out current COVID-19 crisis: complex with a lack of control and information.

When we look at the main psychological effect of experiencing a crisis, it is by no doubt one of the biggest stress factors known to psychologists. Western psychologists often quote the importance of a desperate state caused by the lack of feeling of control, better known as danger or threat. It is often caused by a lack of information of what is going to happen.

Eastern philosophy meets Western psychology

It’s interesting to note that the Eastern approach to crisis is quite more relaxed. The degree to which Eastern cultures feel the need for control is quite lower than Western cultures. Can Eastern philosophy meet Western psychology when dealing with stress?

Yes, says Holistic Health Psychologist Salema Veliu, and explains the links she’s found in a bid to reflect a new era of coaching, incorporating yoga, meditation, psychology and neuroscience. For example, a huge part of Eastern yoga is to be present but observant, to step back and observe, rather than play out the drama like in Western assertiveness training. Yet, while the practices of yoga and meditation are useful, she feels that they are only part of the equation in helping us to return “home” to who we really are and, more importantly, in our discovering our capability to lead a more fulfilling, peaceful life.

The exploration into the Western perspective goes one step further, showing us other tools and practices, yet we can also see the complementarities between the two. The combination of Eastern and Western approaches is changing the way we understand interpersonal connection, conflict, and productivity in the workplace.

To measure the difference between internal and external control, we asked 140,000 people from various countries, through our Culture of Business app, to choose between the following two statements:

  • What happens to me is my own doing.
  • Sometimes I feel that I do not have enough control over the direction my life is taking.

The differences are impressive:

All Western cultures seem to have a significantly higher Internal Locus of Control than their Asian counterparts who prefer an External Locus of Control. This lower need for controlling the environment explains that the stress experienced by Asian cultures due to the COVID-19 crisis might have different causes that in the Western cultures. Where the Westerners seem to have a need for control, Easterners seem to be more believing in harmony, fate and luck.

We asked a sample of 50 Japanese and 50 Dutch people to look at a photo of two people wearing facemasks and select which response best described what that image meant to them. The difference in results was staggering.

The more inner-directed Dutch would argue that a facemask is used for the avoidance of getting infected whilst 69% of the other- and outer-directed Japanese use it to avoid getting others infected. You see another evidence for the different ways East and West deal with their environment.

For some the virus is causing stress because we can’t control it; for others it causes stress because it jeopardizes the harmony with the environment. And with these results the relatively small sample size doesn’t really matter.

An article in The Wall Street Journal verifies this point:

South Korea and Italy offer two bookends of how a country can tackle the coronavirus. Their divergent experiences hold urgent lessons for the U.S. and other democracies where the pandemic is at an earlier stage.

Seoul, accepting the illness had arrived, kept its borders open and aggressively tracked down the infected using data and extensive tests. Rome, after escalating attempts to reduce travel and social interactions, quarantined the whole country, while only screening people once they had shown symptoms.

Different religions, different approaches

The Locus of Control is also a main differentiator between religions, so much so that it has almost led to riots within and between nation states.

Can’t it be an ounce less with that lockdown? An Imam in Pakistan recently argued to open the mosques again in Ramadan. The government wants to moderate all coronavirus measures for the sake of the economy anyway, he reasoned. Then immediately save the places of worship, because God’s blessing is sorely needed in the fight against the virus.

Saudi Arabia thinks otherwise. Halfway through Ramadan, they decided that the hajj to Mecca this summer will almost certainly not take place, because pilgrims are already advised not to book tickets.

India is blocking Hindus from their temples. From a distance, they can still take a look at the gods left to their own devices. Equally hard, for many Muslims, comes the closing of dargahs: mausoleums of saints and temples of folk faith. Orthodox believers detest dargahs. Saudi Arabia has destroyed them all in its own country, because worship of saints is said to be synonymous with polytheism.

Neighboring China no longer has to close mosques or dargahs, because that happened long before coronavirus. A million or more imprisoned Uighur Muslims memorize a new “Quran” composed of wisdom from President Xi Jinping. The narcissist has founded his own religion, as monotheistic as Islam. There is no god except Xi Jinping, the coronavirus conqueror.

A recent opinion piece by Devorah Goldman in The Washington Times states:

In recent days, a stark distinction between two groups of Orthodox Jews made national news. Rabbi Hershel Schachter … was unequivocal in stating that religious communal gatherings, such as prayer services and study groups, should be suspended due to the coronavirus threat.

His guidance was issued in early March and was swiftly followed by Jewish communities across the United States, many of which shut down synagogues and Jewish schools almost immediately.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, an acknowledged Jewish legal authority among a wide swath of Hareidi Jews in Israel, initially ruled that private schools should remain open, though he has since modified his stance to an extent.

Both Modern Orthodox and Hareidi Jews strictly observe the Sabbath, kosher laws and myriad other tenets that govern religious life, including those regarding daily prayer with a quorum of 10 men. Apart from certain differences in dress and cultural norms, their religious worlds are very similar. Yet the philosophical difference in their approaches to the coronavirus is not a shallow one, and should be better understood.

For Rabbi Schachter, the decision to prohibit synagogues and schools from operating was quick, stemming as it did from the legal principle of pikuach nefesh — that saving a life trumps any other religious act, no matter how sacred.

So why did Rabbi Kanievsky arrive at a different conclusion? The answer is rooted in another long-standing line of religious thought — the idea that fulfilment of the Almighty’s will provides its own form of protection. This speaks to a basic religious dilemma regarding how much control we have over the physical world, as opposed to how much we rely on God.

In some ways, the coronavirus seems designed to provoke such questions. It poses a grave threat to many, but some, like Sen. Rand Paul and certain NBA players, have tested positive with no symptoms whatsoever. It has spread swiftly in Italy, but less quickly in Japan, for reasons that are yet unclear. Despite the best efforts of countless health professionals, we still have more questions than answers.

There is a perennial tension between doing our due diligence in guarding against physical dangers and relying on God, and trust in Divine protection is present not only in Jewish thought, but in all monotheistic religions. As we move forward day by day, we will have to make such judgments over and over again.

Internal vs. external orientation in fighting coronavirus

In order to see how the preference of internal over external orientations across cultures affected the way we are dealing with this crisis, we conducted a survey through our Corona Resilience app. We asked users from various countries to respond to statements representing opposing ideas. Responses were given on a sliding scale from “Always” to “Never”. Let’s see how 11 nations scored on the following two statements:

  • Our society successfully learns from the effects of changes in the coronavirus pandemic developments in other societies.
  • Our society tends to rely more on our own insights than external opinions to drive our approach to coronavirus risks.

In the following graph, we see clearly that in the Western world, there is a relatively underdeveloped notion of learning from other societies.

In today’s coronavirus times, we read everywhere about “lessons from Italy” but rarely if ever about “lessons from South Korea”. However, the curve of South Korea, a neighboring country of China, is spectacular. South Korea, a country with 51 million citizens, was able to limit the number of cases to 10,000, while Italy, with 60 million inhabitants, has hit 180,000 infection cases, and is only now hoping for improvement.

The reason why South Korea has been able to curb the pandemic quickly is because they learned quickly from what happened in China and started testing swiftly and massively. Any South Korean could get tested in car parks, a kind of “drive-in” test, after which they were told whether they should go to a hospital, into quarantine, or, if healthy, home. In addition, sanitizers were made available everywhere in public places, while everyone was urged to wear facemasks. And they combined it with their own knowledge and experience of previous epidemics in Asia.

Redefining the customer

During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a tremendous swap from an external to an internal focus. On a nation-state level, this was clearly shown that America is even more first than ever and that borders were closed of almost all nation states within a period of two weeks.

Crises drive organizations as well to start with what seems to be left to control. And obviously that is internal life: all signals from outside were cut off, payments were postponed, and many customers couldn’t be served.  But infection rates and therefore hospital attendance are gradually curving. So we need to start thinking how to serve our external world in the “new normal”.

According to Melanie Butler and Kristin Rivera, your most pressing question should be, “How do I support my customers right now in a meaningful, human, and relevant way?” The relationship according to these authors was already de-humanized, but in times of the “new normal”, we need a human touch even more. As a result, what customers care about most right now might be difficult to achieve because the isolation needs have increased overnight.

During the new era that we are facing, to have the best price, coolest product, or most memorable marketing campaign, it needs more than ever to be combined with emotional intelligence and communicate with care, honesty, and empathy, and build trust as a result. In times of crisis, people want to be seen and understood, and they are extremely sensitive to tone and motive. We need the Inner Game of Selling, as Tim Gallwey would have called it. Are you reaching out to help the client, listen to the client — or just to sell them something? Obviously you need to address both sides.

For example, as all restaurants in the Netherlands had been shut down due to coronavirus, people were craving their usual comforts, including outdoor dining — traditionally a friends and family experience in restaurants. So a restaurant chain began to call their loyal clients to try out what they wanted to eat now that they couldn’t travel to their favorite restaurants. The result is that they are now delivering the ingredients for the cherished meal to individual apartments, with no physical contact, enabling people to have their desired food and deepening their bond with their customers. They co-created a new service that never existed before.

We have found that, to open up communication channels, call-centers have been adding video possibilities to the call that didn’t exist before. Where there was first only the efficiency and content factor that played a role they felt that the COVID-19 crisis would require more bonding.

We all first become more inner-directed followed by outer direction when we’ve gone through pain, and we all become more deeply connected when we’ve suffered together. Those emotional realities are also valid when it comes to relationships between businesses and consumers. Ultimately, COVID-19 will teach us a great deal about the power of reconciling push and pull.

In order to measure the effectiveness in organizations, we asked users from various countries to respond to the following two statements through our Corona Resilience app.

  • In my organization we approach clients to find out about their new needs in the Covid-19
  • In my organization we look at internal measures we could take to have our staff being protected against the possible Covid-19 crisis consequences.

Here are how 11 nations responded:

Conclusion and tips

It is obvious that COVID-19 has put us in a crisis where an internal perspective is paramount. Individuals, organizations and governments feel uncertain about the effects of anything they do and therefore look for things they can control and trust. So we argue that there are two major dilemmas between the internal and external worlds that need reconciliation:

  1. Rely on own insights vs. learn from other societies
  2. Push vs. pull

This leads to the following tips:

  1. If in your organization you are used to relying on your own insights, make sure you install eyes and ears from other societies or disciplines. This could be achieved by hiring other people so you guarantee the diversity of your team(s).
  2. If in your organization you are used to applying an outer-directed attitude, make sure you set up processes to inform yourself about what your leadership has found out themselves. This could be achieved by organizing (digital) workshops where people from outside your organization meet internal key staff.
  3. If your organization is used to pushing products and services into the market, make sure that you get feedback from the client. There are many marketing organizations that are willing to organize that for you.
  4. If your organization is used to listening to and involving clients before you launch you products or services, make sure you retain the major points and include them in the development of the next series of your products.

Free Self-Test: the Corona Resilience Test App

We hope you have some time to complete the 5-minute test, found on our Corona Resilience app, and see its power. It is an app for individual resilience, and within 10 days, we will have one that will include organizational resilience. Please do not hesitate to advise your colleagues and others in your network about this free app. The more data we gather, the better we can make it.

The full program is described simply here. It consists of some pre-work to be completed in the app, which can be downloaded here.

Photo by Jeff Nissen from Pexels