Inclusive leadership in the time of the coronavirus is also worrying about food and toilet paper

Picture of the empty shelves in a supermarket in England. Picture taken on 14th March 2020 by Patricia Gestoso©

Picture of empty shelves in a supermarket in England. Picture taken on 14th March 2020 by Patricia Gestoso ©.

(3 min read)

Last week, I asked a colleague how her recent transition to remote working was going on. Was her internet and VPN working ok? Did she get access to the docking station, screen, and mouse from the office? Was she proactively taking breaks?

Her answers reassured me: Yes, yes, and yes.

She also told me that after finishing her work at 6.00 pm she rushed to the supermarket to only find broccoli and Brussels sprouts. We made fun about how some people rather starve than eat certain food. It also made me realize that I’ve failed as a leader.

The scarcity trap

The picture that accompanies this post it’s how the supermarkets looked like where I live a week ago. It’s how they looked all this week too. And this weekend as well.  Me too, I’ve felt the pain and stress of visiting 3, 4, 5 supermarkets to gather the basic food and toiletries I needed.

I’m acquainted with this feeling. I lived in Venezuela for 12 years and my parents still live there. By now, I’m used to their photos of depleted supermarket shelves and pharmacies with soda bottles where there used to be painkillers. The frequency doesn’t make the problem to go away.

In this context, how did I fail to ask my team if their basic needs were covered? Nor was I urged to do so by the uncountable articles I’ve read from management and leadership magazines providing advice on how to navigate this time of uncertainty in the last three weeks?

This gap is even more bewildering when we think that a wealth of frameworks about human motivation are built on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which stresses that the most important needs are physiological (food, water, shelter, warmth). Then, other needs follow: security needs (safety, employment, assets), social needs (family, friendship, intimacy, belonging), self-esteem (self-worth, accomplishment, confidence), and self-actualization (inner fulfillment) at the top. That is, food needs are more important that security (e.g. washing thoroughly our hands).

Although Maslow’s model has been contested, I challenge readers to find examples where other needs in the hierarchy can take precedence back over physiological needs for extended periods of time.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom physiological needs, followed by safety needs, social needs, self-esteem, and self-actualization at the top.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Shouldn’t business focus on enabling their personnel to fulfill their physiological needs as a first step? Or is that overstepping into the private sphere?

Whilst some may point out that as business leaders our duties finish the moment we timely pay the agreed salary to employees and provide them with the means to do so (laptop, mouse, VPN…), I’d argue that if you are neglecting the impact of physiological needs on performance you are setting yourself for failure. This is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, as per the work on scarcity from behavioral science professors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Mullainathan and Shafir postulate that scarcity – when we feel we have “too little of something” – messes up with our minds and decision: “if the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills—attention, self-control, and long-term planning—often suffer”.

Their studies showcase multiple examples where individuals can lose up to 14 IQ points –more than the impact of staying 24 hr awake – when their environment forces them into a scarcity mindset [source]. Examples are the feeling of having too little money, food, or time.

In summary, the scarcity trap can hurt companies’ performance by focusing efforts on assuring the technological continuity of the business, overlooking that in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) time the devil is in day to day detail. To say it plainly

Employees concerned by the availability of rice and toilet paper in the supermarket at the end of their working day won’t perform at their best, no matter how good is their internet connection or how well suited is their home office.

Leading inclusively

My challenge to us as managers and leaders is that when we go back to work tomorrow we ensure the conversations with our team members explore physiological needs as well: Do they have food? Toiletries? Shelter? Are they queuing at the supermarket at 6.00 am in the morning in the hope of getting some bread and milk? And what’s more important, how can we as managers and leaders facilitate that they carve out the time to fulfill those needs?

Only then, let’s worry about virtual collaboration, laptops, and reliable internet connection.

2 thoughts on “Inclusive leadership in the time of the coronavirus is also worrying about food and toilet paper

  1. Ruth Mann

    You’re right, we often neglect our physical needs to prioritize mental or emotional ones. But putting health first has positive side effects for how we feel in other realms – a lesson I’ve learned in the last 6 months.

    Reply
    1. patriciagestoso Post author

      I’m glad the post resonated with you Ruth.

      I completely agree on both counts: the importance of physical needs and how easy we deprioritize them. Which is somehow surprising since I doubt many people said on their death bed “I wish I’d paid less attention to my health…”.

      Take care.

      Reply

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