Surviving the COVID-19 Riptide: How to be Effective in a Time of Crisis

Like a riptide, COVID-19 has pulled us into its wake, threatening to overwhelm both people and the systems around us. Here’s advice from Pollinate CEO Christy Pettit on how to swim your way out:

Christy Pettit

I have had a few scary episodes being in over my head in rough ocean waves – one of which I had to be rescued from. Those minutes of being pounded under the surf, completely disoriented, surfacing, going down again, blinded and in the dark and winded to the point where I couldn’t take it much longer provide me a tiny visceral flicker of what it might be like to be caught in a full-on riptide. Riptide survivors recount the speed of the current, how suddenly they were far from shore, and the strength, churn and roar of the water around them.

Like swimmers caught in big waves, we’re being pulled into COVID-19’s wake this spring. The virus is an emerging threat that could break our systems, a black swan that could eclipse the economy… regardless of on-going scope, it is an inevitable changer of games. If it does not turn out to be a biological riptide, it is a psychological one already, to be sure.

Here on the ground at home in Ontario – today – we wander through a relatively normal version of life, wondering about our upcoming trips, keeping one eye on live graphs populating the known cases in our regions and scoffing at people thundering through Costco hoarding supplies, as we surreptitiously throw a few more things in our own baskets every trip to the store. Many people in our global community are already in the rip, while here at home we watch and worry, having many conversations about whether we’re over- or under-responding and what the mass cancellation of so many things will do to our livelihoods. Travel is being curtailed, conferences cancelled, supply chains disrupted, people are being asked to work from home for extended periods if there’s a chance they’ve been exposed.

What can surviving a riptide teach us about responding to the situation we find ourselves in now?

Is it possible to chart a course to maintain – or even grow – effectiveness in our organizations, despite crisis all around?

First, know that there is no one way to survive a riptide or a crisis like COVID-19; the current (or the situation) morphs constantly. The science on surviving a riptide is applicable to the challenge we face today: it indicates that a truly agile response is needed. Some survivors and scientists say the common wisdom of “stay calm and swim parallel to shore” doesn’t cover all eventualities. If you’re a strong swimmer then paddling parallel to the shore and looking for breaking waves might enable you to swim out of it. Those of us unable to swim out of the rip are encouraged to call for help and float with the current. We can be reassured that apparently 80% of the time a riptide will go in a circle back to shore… over, possibly, three long minutes.

Keep calm

One thing all experts, rescuers and survivors agree on is that a calm and measured response is essential. It’s such a massively tall order in such a moment of acute stress and yet literally life saving. Thrashing or swimming against the current – in the ocean and in business – quickly exhausts resources. In crisis, look for ways to amplify your agility – swim if you can swim, float when you need to float. Keep checking for the solid ground – the definite answers – but don’t kick for it if it isn’t there. We need to accept that in some moments being calm is all that we can do.

For many of us, me for sure, being calm requires practiced effort. It doesn’t mean acting like you have it all handled every minute. The mantra “we’re doing the best we can and working on what more we need to do” can help protect you and others from becoming exhausted trying to escape before the rip is willing to let go.

Be prepared

Keeping calm is always easier if we are prepared. Prepare by first focusing on information backed by science, facts you can verify, the experiences of people who have been in parallel situations. Extrapolate potential risks to you or your business and map out your response plans with the information you know now. When a threat does loom, gather and monitor all available information to thoroughly understand the situation at hand. Visualize all the different things you could do to swim with the current and find your way out.

Bring people together

Unlike a riptide, most emergency situations involve groups of people caught in the current. As leaders, we must be present and be seen to be working through the problems at hand. It’s our job to provide people with the best information we can – ensuring balanced, factual messages – to limit panic. We need to look for ways to insulate people from the constant battering of fear and call a halt to the amount of time spent in full dither.

One way is by helping people participate effectively in creating the solutions to find a way out together. Another is to help people get comfortable working in a wide variety of ways for resilience to whatever challenges or opportunities present.

Share knowledge and know-how

A mentoring mindset can help: Mentors get clear on what people need to know, then work with individuals and small groups to determine how they can best get that knowledge and apply it.

Mentors model the way in exploring and learning alternatives to existing practices: if you can’t travel for training or meet face-to-face in a large group, can you accomplish the same objectives another way? Experts like Nancy White – a leading facilitator, trainer and instructional designer – are offering resources to facilitator communities about moving online in a crisis.

Mentors encourage looping back to confirm that a mentee or cohort is applying new knowledge or skills successfully. As leaders we routinely think we are communicating more, and more clearly, than we actually are, given that people may feel overloaded. How we are able to communicate is also changing and may not be face-to-face, as is the case with ‘work from home’ procedures around COVID-19. Now it’s more important than ever to have processes for effectively transferring knowledge and ensuring knowledge has become know-how. This is something we’ve been immersed in for a decade at Pollinate.

Track progress

Are you really clear what gains you are making? It’s so easy, especially in times of crisis, to feel like time is speeding up and slowing down; sometimes so much happens in a day it’s hard to track what actually got done. Effective tracking means selecting a few things to track; again, those that matter most right now. Celebrate any and all wins! Act on tasks or problems that are “stuck” in progress.

Taking our own medicine to keep calm, be prepared, bring people together, share knowledge and track progress, here at Pollinate we’re continuing to work to share best practices for weathering these stormy days. Stay tuned for more information and the opportunity to practice effectiveness with us.


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