The subtle but vital skill Covid19 has made difficult to learn

“Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” -- Ron Burgundy, Anchor man

How true these words ring today from Will Ferrell’s laughable character in Anchor Man, a satirical comedy of buffoonery and over-the-top gender stereotyping resulting from the introduction of a woman to a news team. But in a very real and sobering way, here we have yet another case where reality is more incredible than fiction. Challenges resulting from the Covid19 global pandemic “really got out of hand fast.” Buried in the avalanche of effects, there's a subtle, but vital skill that Covid19 had made difficult to learn.

But here we are.

Since it’s explosion and unforgiving grip on the world stage, Covid19 has reaped havoc in all social systems in countless ways. In particular, there's a subtle, yet crucial skill Covid19 has made difficult to learn. And “no,” as is the case with any change for the ages, and this is one, we won’t go back to the way we were.

But let’s take a reality check.

rather than throwing us back in time, in many ways, this pandemic has actually catapulted us ahead in time.

No, this isn’t your basic “get over it” change. But it isn’t the Armageddon, either. This is a transformation. And with any transformation there’s progress. And it’s happening. In effect, rather than throwing us back in time, in many ways, this pandemic has actually catapulted us ahead in time. As a result, we’ve had to learn new ways, and unlearn others.

In the maelstrom of this time warp, technology has become a critical factor, rapidly emerging in its capabilities and use to “fill in the gaps” for a world of limited, and at times literally halted, social gathering. If you didn’t make much use of technology before the pandemic, you are now. Almost immediately, everything went online, including work. And the impacts have exposed an unimaginable “flaw” in the way we do business -- the need to be in touch with others.

In the case of pandemic shutdowns, businesses are now required to have employees work from their homes. As a necessary result, the use of technology has literally become a lifesaver of people and businesses. For some this has been a change of degree – they were already designed for remote work. For others, this came as a real shock with sometimes serious consequences. The ways and means of a virtual economy have driven big changes in work, some of them not so obvious but nonetheless critical. Among these I consider the new behaviors that traditional office workers must learn.

Before I get to the subtle, but vital skill that Covid19 has made difficult to learn, the following are the more obvious skills required in the new normal at work:

  1. Technology skills. People will need to rapidly acquire technology expertise. Shared working spaces will not refer to where the stapler is, but rather be a technology for collaboration on certain projects. Good news here: major advances in technology’s capacity to enhance learning are well in motion. It’s helping us learn what we need to learn.
  2. How to manage boundaries. People will need to manage what we used to call work-life balance in a completely new way. Work from home (WFH) is now the reality for enough people that scientists can detect a drop in the emissions caused by cars and busses (i.e., commuting to work). Research suggests that people who WFH put in more hours and experience more stress than those who go to work (GTW). Because a “balance” is important to psychological health, people will need to define new “boundaries” that allow them to be fully present at both work and at home. This is not easy.
  3. Relearning relationships. How to greet people, help each other, coordinate tasks, etc. will be new. How can you make people feel close while physically separated?
  4. Mastering online communication. Texting, emails, audio-clips, memes, etc. What do they mean when what used to be the majority of the message one sent was body language? Extra care must be taken to insure that what you want the other to know, learn, do and feel from your online “chats” is what they really received. For instance, what does empathy look like in a world made virtual due to a pandemic? More than ever, senders need to be clear about the messages they send in terms of content, tone and intent.
  5. Learning to do jobs completely remotely. In time, what we now call remote will be central. But that’s “in time.” Many have been thrust into this new reality overnight and are grinding along by fits and starts (K-12 teachers, for example). We all need to find sometimes creative ways to accomplish what we did before in a whole new way.

These five are fairly obvious, if not easy, because of the “visible” and mandatory changes in the work environment.

Sometimes it’s the subtle things that make all the difference.

There’s another skillset we must learn that’s especially critical and that's been truly transformed by our technology supported, new normal. It's more important now than before, and yet, it's a much more subtle, vital skill that Covid19 has made difficult to learn. It falls under the category of interpersonal influence and includes the subset skills of emotional intelligence upon which influence depends.

We must learn how to manage and present our desired “self,” to read others for what they don’t say, and to influence them – behaviorally and emotionally -- all through technology.

Sound easy? It isn’t. It wasn’t even easy “back in the day” when you could be in close physical proximity to others. Now it's a skill that Covid19 has made difficult to learn.

In my role as an executive coach I frequently help individuals through their relationships with others at work. The majority I coach have a common flaw. They don’t know how or when to be influential versus when to be right (they’ve aced the “how” part of being right, it’s the “when” that gets them).

This is about the challenge of managing behaviors grounded in our social paradox -- our need to get ahead and our need to get along. And it can’t be easily parsed to specific individuals or situations. They have to be done simultaneously and with the same people to be both convincing and compelling. But more importantly here, it’s about being able to read and respond to the most subtle behaviors of others.


For the “always righter,” the ability to sense others’ feelings is even more complicated because “the other” oftentimes masks their feelings for fear that revealing them will further aggravate the aggressor. What would be subtle to detect is now deliberately covered up. Add the challenge of detecting that in a Zoom meeting.

Aggression transmits far better than emotional reaction.

“Not me” you say?

The challenge of reading others (i.e., emotional intelligence) is present whenever social interaction occurs. And mistakes are made far more frequently than you think. (How many times have you regretted hitting the “send” button on an email; or wished that “recall” actually worked?)

Communication faux pas are much more likely in asynchronous, sensory constrained media. Voicemails are whipped off with no ability to “hear” how they’re received. Emails sent without “reading” the attitude of the recipient(s). And texts are worse.

Reading others' emotions can be like looking at an elephant through a microscope. You only get a small glimpse of what someone's really feeling

reading others online is like trying to see an approaching elephant through a microscope

Today’s person of influence must master a whole new way of interpersonal insight and behavior. What was hard has become even harder as the myriad of social cues we send and receive, consciously and unconsciously, via interpersonal interaction have moved online -- and “off screen.” No matter the bandwidth or the latest technology, reading others online is like trying to see an approaching elephant through a microscope. You’re getting just a sliver of the real picture, but you better watch out.

And so, like this virus that has caused so much damage, it’s what we don’t see that gets good people in trouble.

Mind your manners, pay particular attention to how you're perceived by others, and mind the gap.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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