Solidarity and selfishness during coronavirus

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The different reactions to the pandemic – and the driving forces behind them – offer interesting lessons for business leaders

Faced with today’s exceptional challenges around coronavirus (COVID-19), people are responding in very different ways – some more altruistically than others.

But while it is common for generous behaviour to prompt praise, while individualistic or selfish actions provoke resentment and ire, it is important to understand that different behaviour stems from the way an individual has framed a situation. A person’s perception of a given situation, be it during a pandemic or in a business environment, is key to comprehending their actions and expanding one’s own perspective.

We tend to categorise interpretations that differ from our own as wrong

For example, a person who is feeling threatened and scared is more likely to act in a selfish way (e.g. panic buying), while someone who perceives the situation as a chance to give their life new meaning, may seek to do this through helping others.

There is also the friction created by the different feelings over the media – those who distrust major news organisations are likely to behave in a way that provokes anger in those who do trust them, and vice versa.

Judging vs. self-reflection

We tend to categorise interpretations that differ from our own as wrong, and during the pandemic we have seen no shortage of people calling for the punishment of those they consider to be “misbehaving”.   

Given that we tend to judge and label the behaviour of others, it is crucial that we take into account the fundamental role that perceptions play in determining the way people respond to a situation. Rather than focusing on judging, criticising or resenting others, the current challenge presents an important learning opportunity, giving us the chance to explore our own perspectives and reactions.

When faced with a challenge, we often focus on changing the external world

This requires us to ask ourselves some difficult questions, such as where our opinions come from, whether we are open to considering different positions, whether our framing of reality is constrained by what we already believe or prefer to believe, as well as what potential changes in perspective are required by the current situation.

When faced with a challenge, we often focus on changing the external world, including other individuals, often to no avail. By focusing on a process of self-growth, we can become less selfish ourselves, by having more consideration for the concerns of others and how they see the situation. In other words, by focusing on this inner process, we start to become the type of person we would like to see around us.

Self-inquiry in business

The different ways people are responding to coronavirus also provide a learning opportunity for organisations, prompting questions over the role perception and self-inquiry can play when attempting to encourage (or discourage) certain types of behaviour in business.

Monitoring and punishment are the methods generally preferred by businesses when it comes to stopping selfish behaviour in employees. However, a significant amount of research has found these approaches to be limited in their long-term success. Not only do they require considerable resources, but they also have the unpleasant side effect of generating resentment, meaning employees are more likely to rebel.

For a more comprehensive approach, an organisation could acknowledge how an employee’s behaviour is shaped by the way the individual has framed a situation, as well as how the organisation itself has contributed to this view.

Monitoring and punishment are the methods generally preferred by businesses when it comes to stopping selfish behaviour in employees

For example, if an organisation is trying to prevent cheating, it should consider why employees consider this an appropriate response to a given situation, as well as its own role in creating this perception (e.g. targets that are too ambitious). This is a more productive means to getting to the root of the problem and addressing it in a sustainable manner.

In short, organisations, which are complex systems, would benefit from acknowledging the role they have in generating the very same problems that they want to avoid, rather than placing the responsibility elsewhere.

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Laura Noval

About Laura J. Noval

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour
Laura J. Noval holds a PhD from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and has extensive professional experience in Argentina, Austria, France, Germany and the US.

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