When faced with a situation like the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it’s possible to control our reactions so that we are better positioned to manage stress and lead others, says Dr. Stephen L. Cohen ’67.
Founder and principal of Strategic Leadership Collaborative, Inc. and a former member of the HWS Board of Trustees, Cohen has more than 40 years of experience in industrial psychology, human resource management, business strategy and leadership development.
By using three intersecting behavioral models, explained below, Cohen says that everyone — from parents whose children are suddenly home from school to leaders whose employees are looking to them for guidance and stability — can help themselves and others as we move through this crisis.
“Using these tools to take stock of our reactions can help us all to manage our anxiety and make better decisions,” says Cohen.
Circles of Influence, Control and Concern
The first model stems from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey identified two concentric circles, the outer Circle of Influence, filled with the things that you can impact or effect, and the smaller inner Circle of Control, filled with things that you can manage. Over the years, an outermost Circle of Concern was added, indicating things over which you have little or no control, but for which you have heightened sensitivity.
Cohen explains that the objective is to enlarge your Circle of Control so that your Circle of Concern gets smaller, which will then help you to enlarge your Circle of Influence to help others. “The more in control you can be of your behavior, the more likely you are to influence others in an effective way,” he says. “The theory is to minimize your concern circle so you can begin to take action.”
Trait vs. State Anxiety Inventory
The second model allows us to identify how we react to adverse situations. At its core, the model categorizes people based on whether their anxiety is a consistent attribute (trait anxiety) or a temporary emotional condition (state anxiety).
Cohen explains that those who have state anxiety experience feelings of unease and worry — and often the accompanying elevated heart rate and rapid breathing — only in certain circumstances. When the perceived threat goes away, so does much of the anxiety. Those with higher levels of trait anxiety experience anxiety more often and more intensely, and about a broader range of situations. “State anxiety is a temporary feeling, whereas trait anxiety is part of a person’s personality,” says Cohen. “There are people who tend to be frequently anxious and there are people who are anxious only under certain conditions — like now.”
Crisis Management Continuum
The third model is the crisis management continuum, which spans from total denial to total panic. In terms of the COVID-19 outbreak, on the denial side is someone who disbelieves that the coronavirus is a problem or thinks it’s a hoax, while on the panic side is someone who is filled with fright and dread. “Along the continuum we also find people who believe in the pandemic but think it doesn’t affect them as well as people who understand the seriousness of the situation but are ready to help others get through it,” says Cohen.
“What I found when I put these three models on top of each other is something very interesting,” says Cohen. “If you look at the circles against the continuum, the people on the far left are denying it, but they may be concerned. People in the middle accept that it’s happening and hope to influence themselves and help others, and the people on the far right are trying to get more control of this thing, because if they don’t, they’re going to panic.”
Cohen says that the question then becomes what all of this means for managing our mental health.
Take Stock and Self-Reflect
Before we can begin to help others — people in our family, our community or our workplace — we first need to evaluate where we fall on the three models. Think of it like putting on your oxygen mask before assisting the person next to you, explains Cohen.
While it’s best to be in the middle of each model — having enough anxiety so that you’re aware of what’s happening; being concerned but also having control so that you can positively influence those around you; and not being in denial but not panicking — the first step is evaluating where you currently are.
“The ultimate solution for managing our mental health in a crisis of this proportion is taking stock and finding your own personal comfort zone,” says Cohen.
Cohen explains that if your anxiety level tends to be exacerbated under certain high-stress situations and you feel the coronavirus outbreak is worthy of panic, then you want to be sure you can control as much as possible to reach your own comfort level. On the other hand, if you have state or situational anxiety, you may be concerned about the situation but not feel the need to control it. Instead, you can work to broaden your Circle of Influence to assist others.
“We often skip the step of self-reflection and try to act right away,” says Cohen. “Once you are aware of your current state, you can make a conscious effort to move yourself to the center. And once you’re there, then you can act more appropriately and effectively.”
Strategies for Leaders
Just as the three models can be used for self-evaluation and self-management, they can also be used by leaders to counsel those who are looking to them for guidance and stability. Use the models to evaluate others and then manage them toward the middle, Cohen explains.
“Above all, a good leader must remain calm,” he says. “Nothing can get done in overzealous, over-excited panic — except creating more panic.” He goes on to explain that leaders must acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis, but also influence and guide people through it, using control.
“Take stock, take a deep breath, find out where you are,” Cohen says. “Manage to the middle, and then you will be able to help yourself and others get through this more mentally healthy than not.”
A psychology major at Hobart, Dr. Stephen L. Cohen ’67 has spent his career applying psychological research and principles to both employee and organizational performance under both normal and challenging situations.