How Stockdale Paradox will help leaders survive this pandemic

Being too optimistic will not help you


While wishing a ‘happy new year’ to everyone today, we can only hope that 2022 really turns out to be a happy one. Why? Surrounded by so much uncertainty and with talk of a possible third wave, ‘normalcy’ definitely remains elusive.

Will things remain this way forever? Can we ever hope to live, or run businesses or even travel with family normally? These are questions to which people are seeking answers. While the optimists amongst us will tell themselves that normalcy is within reach and even attempt to infect others with that optimism, the not-so-optimistic ones will simply do their best to cope and tell others to not forget reality and be prepared for the worst.

At a time when leaders in the corporate world and even employees — tired of switching from a work-from-home model to a hybrid one and then back again — are yearning for a normal life, devoid of restrictions of any kind, does it help to be overly optimistic?

“In such tough situations our formula is to take all physical processes online and believe that they could be performed virtually”

Sandiep Batra, CHRO, Landmark Group

Just when things were picking up for businesses around the world, the rising cases and the new Omicron variant have pushed everything back to square one. Doesn’t that prove that those who had never raised their hopes too high in the first place were right in doing so?

This is where we should recall the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale, who was one of the highest-ranking naval officers in the US, was captured as a prisoner of war by the Nazis. He was kept in a concentration camp. James Collin, the renowned writer, had mentioned Stockdale in his book, Good to Great.

Stockdale had survived the horrors of the concentration camp for years, where many had succumbed. When Collin interviewed Stockdale and asked him about those at the camp who could not survive, Stockdale revealed that it was the optimistic lot that failed to make it.

As per Stockdale, the optimists kept thinking that they would be free by next Christmas. However, contrary to their beliefs, many Christmases came and went, but their situation remained unchanged. Therefore, they died of shock and disappointment. In other words, the optimistic people succumbed to their inability to face the reality.

On the other hand, Stockdale personally was very much confident that one day he would survive and meet his family and everything would be fine, but he did not let the harsh truths and brutal reality of the world out of his mind. Therefore, while he was always hoping for the best, at the same time, he was also prepared for the future.

“Leaders at Max are well aware that they will all have to work in this new normal” 

Shailesh Singh, chief people officer, Max Life Insurance

The book quotes Stockdale thus, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Named after Stockdale, the Paradox suggests that one should never confuse one’s belief in survival with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of the current reality.

Leaders and the Stockdale Paradox

For leaders, following the Stockdale Paradox is a must in these times, when one day seems to give hope of a brighter future and the very next day shatters those hopes.

Leaders should refrain from telling their employees that they should live in the hope that one day some vaccine will be discovered to protect them from the virus, or that herd immunity will save the world. Instead, they should make them understand that the virus is probably here to stay, that we may need to live with the reality of COVID-19 forever, and therefore, learn to cope with it in the best possible way.

Many companies that had reopened their offices are realising that normalcy is still not within reach. Some have reverted to the work-from-home model. Not all leaders are liking this. After all, it does impact their team-management skills.

At Max Life Insurance, all employees have been asked to work from home. “It was a mixed bag of emotions. Some leaders are not happy with the decision, but we had to do it,” reveals Shailesh Singh, chief people officer, Max Life Insurance. However, he points out that at Max, the employees and leaders nurture a ‘growth mindset,’ and therefore, they know how to survive. Singh says that the leaders at Max are well aware that they will all have to live with this reality.

Learning and adapting

While some sectors actually benefited from the pandemic, others took a hit. The retail sector witnessed very low footfall, with people choosing to stay away from crowded places. Many stores remained shut for a good part of the year during the pandemic. For leaders in the retail sector, therefore, the Stockdale Paradox becomes even more relevant.

“The field workforce, including leaders, are all very well aware now, that the challenges posed by the pandemic are part of their job”

Rajorshi Ganguli, global head-HR, Alkem Laboratories

Admitting that the current situation is not new for them, Sandiep Batra, CHRO, Landmark Group says, “We have seen the first wave and have learned many lessons from it.” He further shares that in the first wave itself the leadership at the Group had realised that the pandemic was here to stay for a while and they would simply have to adapt to it. Therefore, for them, the focus was on taking the business online and making it stronger. The Company had to bring about changes and adopt new ways of working in the new normal. “Our formula was to take all physical processes online and believe that they could be performed virtually,” mentions Batra.

Awareness of reality

While employees working in corporate offices face a certain set of problems, those working in the field face a different set of problems.

While all pharma companies have been thriving amidst the pandemic, in terms of business growth, their field workforce has had to overcome many challenges.

Rajorshi Ganguli, global head-HR, Alkem Laboratories, shares with HRKatha that people working in the field have been dealing with challenges every day in the last two years. For them, the situation was always grim and full of risks. “The field workforce, including leaders, are all very well aware now, that the challenges posed by the pandemic are part of their job,” asserts Ganguli.

That is why, the Company keeps organising webinars where doctors and psychologists share information with the field workers about the dangers involved and the precautions to be taken. “Such initiatives give the field workforce the message that we are all in this together,” enunciates Ganguli.

While it is good for leaders to be full of hope and positivity, they should ensure that they do not let the hard reality out of sight. Normalcy cannot be magically restored overnight, but we can all certainly learn to cope and survive, whatever the situation may be.

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