By Shane Lloyd | May 4, 2020
Over the last couple of months, COVID-19 has impacted the way we do business, interact with one another, and think about each other. As state leaders issue orders to safeguard the communities we value, we also need to take care to manage our own fears and how we perceive and respond to others. Given the alarming uncertainty and infinite flow of sometimes questionable information, the conditions are ripe for widespread and deleterious manifestations of bias. However, these difficult times also present an opportunity to pause and reflect on the common good.
What we know from neuroscience is that our automatic brain does not distinguish between whether threats are psychological, physical, or existential. Moreover, the brain has a strong bias towards the negative. Our minds, in an instant, will disregard evidence because we are operating in survival mode. We also know from psychological theories on the human brain, that humans respond most effectively to threats that are intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous. Leave any one of those elements up for a debate and we should not be surprised that we are seeing the mixed responses to the threat of coronavirus at the individual, state and federal levels.
When driven exclusively by unaddressed biases, we risk operating in a manner that magnifies destructive dynamics like xenophobia and racism. The anti-Asian racism that has increased to shocking levels amidst the COVID-19 pandemic reflects ancient racist tropes that have existed for far too long in the complex and sometimes wrenching history of the United States. For example, the internment of people of Japanese descent living in the United States during World War II was largely due to the unexamined assumptions that the Japanese would betray American interests, even though two-thirds of those interred were American citizens. When coronavirus coverage began to increase, some political leaders erroneously referred to the virus as the “China virus” instead of “coronavirus” or “COVID-19,” terms used by health officials at the federal level. Although there has been a history of naming a new virus by its place of origin, global health officials have learned that not only can that harm people from those regions, it can also lead to long term repercussions including violence. Within the United States, for example, there have been heightened rates of Anti-Chinese discrimination and prejudice. In China, African people have been subjected to high rates of hostility and racism due to misplaced fears that Africans will spur a new outbreak of coronavirus in China.
As leaders at home or in major companies, we must understand the roots of the histories that inform some of these racist behaviors, while also identifying strategies that disrupt bias, call out racism, and demonstrate allyship. It is critical that we balance our automatic inclinations with deliberate and careful thought, especially before we engage in any form of action that can be magnified due to the power and reach of the decision maker. Therefore, we need to draw on reputable sources and the best evidence available to inform our decisions on how to best navigate these circumstances.
Additionally, actively disrupting bias allows us to be present to the realities confronting other communities across the United States. We can strive for justice and fairness for all people and participate in the communal efforts taking place. While some major companies are paying their workers for time they would have worked, other organizations are shuttering their operations and laying off employees leaving many without pay and insurance. Many schools, colleges, and universities have transitioned to online learning based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but this action disregards the dynamics of the digital divide across America, particularly in rural settings. Fortunately, internet providers, like Comcast, have offered internet for low-income families to ensure young learners can keep up with their studies. In these uncertain times, local communities across the nation have organized mutual aid funds to support families with food and essential resources. These are the sorts of transformative initiatives that reflect the best of what we can offer to each other to take care of one another.
Periods of tumult, uncertainty, and crisis demand the inclusive leadership practices we have facilitated for thousands of leaders and organizations. The ability to make connections, act with courage, and activate ambassadors, allies, and change agents will be essential as we navigate these perilous times. Although the coronavirus is something few of us have faced in our generation, we at Cook Ross also know that we have confronted many challenges before and surmounted them. As you work to take care of your friends and loved ones, we encourage you to couple your #physicaldistancing with efforts to connect with local and national efforts to protect the most vulnerable and help us weather this storm together.
Shane L. Lloyd is a Consultant with Cook Ross. His extensive experience in diversity, inclusion and belonging includes work with Brown University, Yale University, and the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Health Disparities and Access to Care teams. His areas of focus include various dimensions of social identity, expertise in the areas of race and socioeconomic class, and in-depth knowledge of research in behavioral economics; psychology; organizational behavior; sociology; and public health.