Omicron Reveals the Fundamental Lack of Nonprofit Leadership Vision About the Future of Work

TASA ID: 22108

Leaders are sticking their heads into the sand of reality on Omicron. Unless they take needed steps, the results may be catastrophic for their nonprofits.

Omicron took over from Delta in the US in late December. The CDC warns that Omicron’s higher infectivity and ability to escape vaccines will overwhelm many hospitals in January.

Unfortunately, most organizations are not pivoting effectively to meet Omicron. From the start of the pandemic, many leaders insisted on a return to a “normal” office-centric culture. That’s despite the fact that a large majority of employees express a strong desire for a flexible hybrid or fully remote schedule.

Thus, in response to Omicron, organizations are bringing out the same old “delay the office reopening” play that they used with Delta. Regardless of plenty of warnings from future-proofing and cognitive bias experts, leaders are showing no intention of a strategic shift for the hybrid and remote future of work. That’s why so many nonprofits are losing talented staff as part of the Great Resignation.

Mental Blindspots Obscuring Leadership Vision

You probably heard the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Workers never wanted a return to a “normal” office-centric culture, and Omicron just helps illustrate how pointless and counterproductive it is to try to turn back the clock to January 2020.

What explains this puzzling leadership behavior? Leaders – and all of us – are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic decisions.

One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet the leadership at many of our biggest organizations denied the reality of this risk. Now they are reaping the whirlwind.

We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.

When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes leaders used to office-centric culture and ways of collaborating to reject any alternatives.

Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of returning to the office over the competitive advantage of preparing for the long-term hybrid and remote future of work.

The Way Forward to the Hybrid and Remote Future of Work

The way forward into the future of work is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future of work. Instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, nonprofits need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team.

After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergent situations, whether COVID cases, climate change-related disruptors, or others. Such delegation of responsibility helps develop leadership skills and makes team leaders the owners of the decision, which makes people motivated to do their best.

At the same time, nonprofit team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. These practices involve facilitating innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming and serendipitous idea generation. To improve collaboration and team bonding for hybrid and remote teams, team leaders need to integrate virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.

In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management, serves as CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and is a best-selling author of several books, including Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author. Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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