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Why You Focus on the Wrong Things in Times of Stress (& how to avoid it)

By Dr. Gleb Tsipursky - January 14, 2021

What are you paying attention to during this pandemic? What you’re focusing on can make a big difference to your business, your career, and your health.

Many people are very excited by the prospect of effective vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. This wonderful news has deservedly lifted the stock market, and many companies are moving to eliminate planned budget and staff cuts. Yet too many business leaders and stock investors are showing excessive enthusiasm over the attention to vaccine news. The vaccine rollout to the general public is slated for early Spring of 2021.


They’re not facing the reality of today’s third wave of COVID, which is flooding many hospitals and leaving patients stranded. The urgent requests by governors to stay at home and telecommute to tamp down the danger of the pandemic in early November have turned into renewed shutdowns by late November across the US to decrease the strain on the medical system. As a result, the economic situation will not improve, realistically speaking, until late Spring 2021. It might seem hard to contemplate that the next few months will be even worse than the last few months, but that’s the reality we’re facing. If you’re not paying attention to the reality of the third wave, then your attention is misdirected, as it is for so many people.

Consider what catches and holds your attention whenever you read or watch the news. Most of us tend to be optimistic and focus on the bright side of life. Sure, we might acknowledge that it’s much wiser to balance optimism and pessimism about the future of the pandemic, given the combination of both good and bad news: good news in the long term of Summer 2021 onward, bad news in the short and medium term of this Winter and Spring.

Yet it’s hard for us to pay attention to contradictory ideas. Holding such opposing perspectives in our mind causes cognitive dissonance, unless we train ourselves to accept complexity and nuance. Thus, most people prefer to let go of the negative information and focus on the positive, despite the danger to their business, their career, and their health of doing so.


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Manufacturing Attention: A Case Study

Let’s consider James, the COO of a mid-size manufacturing company, founded in 2012 and growing quickly, whose senior leadership was determined to push through with its product expansion plans even during the onset of the pandemic. When COVID-19 made the news in December, James as well as the company’s CEO and CFO dismissed any thoughts that it could turn into anything serious. However, as COVID-19 numbers started to climb in the US in early March, James grew concerned and discussed with the other leaders the possibility of postponing their expansion plans. He suggested rerouting their resources towards boosting tech and security to prepare for a possible work from home migration for the company. Then, there was the looming threat of loss of productivity in case of an outbreak and perhaps even a shutdown.

The company had already been testing some equipment to automate more tasks with good results for the past few months, technology that many of their competitors had already secured and implemented in the last couple of years. James urged the CEO to greenlight the purchase of this equipment and its wide- scale implementation, instead of waiting another 12 months, as initially planned. Using this equipment, many fewer workers with a more general skill set would be needed to produce the company’s products.

Unfortunately, the CEO was unconvinced and decided to push through with the expansion plans. Of course, you can already imagine what happened next, given the boom in COVID-19 cases and the wave of restrictions that were soon imposed on the country. James’ company, along with many other companies in the manufacturing industry, was heavily disrupted.

James decided to contact me for a consultation in late May after learning about my work through a webinar I conducted about how organizations can adapt to the changes brought by the pandemic. When he called me, his company was already embroiled in internal team conflicts and its operations had already been severely disrupted. Even after the state allowed reopenings for businesses, many employees either refused or were unable to go to work due to quarantines, greatly slowing production. Even those who had desk jobs had a lot of difficulties working remotely due to the company’s overall lack of preparation for a work from home setup. The company’s business continuity plan was completely inadequate for such a major disruption.


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COVID-19 and the Attentional Bias

When I met with James as well as the company’s CEO and CFO over Zoom, I told them that we need to acknowledge that COVID-19 severely disrupted our world and will not disappear anytime soon. Believing otherwise helped drive many companies deep into chaos because business leaders failed to take the right action at the right time. The refusal to recognize the gravity of the pandemic and even the act of downplaying it stem from a combination of three factors:

  • The nature of the virus itself

  • The preexisting beliefs and plans of the business leaders

  • The dangerous judgment errors we all tend to make that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists call cognitive biases

The latter mental blindspots stem, in large part, from our evolutionary background. Our gut reactions evolved for the ancestral savanna environment, not the modern world. Yet gurus and business leaders alike overwhelmingly advocate going with our gut and following our intuition in making decisions, instead of using effective decision-making processes. One of these cognitive biases is the attentional bias, which caused James’ colleagues to decide erroneously at the onset, and amidst, this pandemic.

Attentional bias refers to our tendency to pay attention to information that we find most emotionally engaging, and ignore information that we don’t. Given the intense, in-the-moment nature of threats and opportunities in the ancestral savanna, this bias is understandable. Yet in the modern environment, sometimes information that doesn’t feel emotionally salient is actually the most important data.

Thus, to avoid disastrous gut-based decisions, we need to use effective decision-making and risk management techniques to select the best options. That applies to business and other life areas. For example, in shopping, we can use a decision aid such as this website that reduces our choices to the top 10 options so that we pay attention to the best possible choices, rather than being caught by an effective marketing message.

Similarly in the modern environment, you need to pay attention to and accept the current reality of ongoing waves of restrictions as the new abnormal, instead of a temporary emergency. That means fundamentally changing your internal and external business model if you want your organization to survive and thrive during these troubled months.


Steering Back to Efficiency

When I last spoke with James in the end of June 2020, he told me that he, along with the CEO and CFO, decided to meet with all the senior and line managers to assess the most pressing issues in each department and come up with short- and long-term ways to address the pain points. Next, the CEO held a company-wide virtual town hall meeting to update everyone about what was happening and to present how senior management planned to solve the company’s crisis.

Due to the CEO’s efficient and engaging way of handling the town hall, a lot of pent-up resentment across the company was significantly reduced. This paved the way for better cooperation, which was crucial for the succeeding major steps that James, the CEO, and CFO took -- starting with stopping all projects related to the product expansion and shelving it for the next two fiscal years.

Fortunately, only about 30% of the budget resources had been released for the expansion-related projects by the time they first consulted me. As a result, the CEO, CFO, and James were able to make a timely and strategic plan on how they can reallocate the remaining 70%, including:

  • Purchasing and installing the automation equipment

  • Investing into necessary social distancing and hygiene measures at their manufacturing facilities to comply with CDC guidelines

  • Boosting tech, security, and funding for home offices for an efficient work from home transition for all employees who could be moved to telecommuting

  • Providing professional development for their workers, both in working from home collaboration and communication for those who worked from home, and in using the new equipment and CDC guidelines compliance for those who needed to come to work

  • James told me that he and the leadership team were pleased with the results of the changes they made, especially once the numbers of COVID-19 cases began to increase in mid-June, prompting a pause of the reopening process that eventually led to a cycle of reopening and restrictions.


During these disruptive times of the pandemic, it’s important to keep biases in check and pay attention to critical information. Keep in mind that even if your company had trouble making the best decisions at the onset of the pandemic and fell into cognitive biases, you can still steer it back to the right path.


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About the Author

An internationally-renowned thought leader in emotional and social intelligence, risk management and decision making, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky specializes in helping leaders concerned about resistance to change. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consulting and training company Disaster Avoidance Experts. Its solutions transform resistance to change into commitment by fusing narratives, nudges, and neuroscience. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic (Changemakers Books, 2020). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in Time, Fast Company, CBS News, Inc. Magazine, and CNBC.

His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training experience. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. Contact him at Gleb@DisasterAvoidanceExperts.com, follow him on Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, on Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and visit https://DisasterAvoidanceExperts.com/subscribe.

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