After reaching quasi-pandemic proportions, the coronavirus virus is a perfect example of a high conduct-risk challenge. The rate at which the epidemic will continue to spread will largely depend on how people manage the risk of contagion and whether they comply with a number of precautionary measures.
Not only can adherence to certain sanitary steps, travel advisories, and quarantine requirements help contain the spread, but it can also reduce future virus mutations and the increased risk of lethality that may derive from such mutations.
While compliance with safety norms and precautionary guidelines seems the most rational form of behavior at this point, it is not necessarily the most likely one.
As reported in recent news stories, even when exposed to elevated risk, people may selfishly ignore quarantine requirements out of fear or the desire to tend to their own personal needs. Moreover, while thought safety norms can be especially beneficial when the epidemic is still contained, it is precisely at such times that they may be overlooked.
The fact that people may miscalculate the risk of contagion for a variety of reasons strengthens the importance of business’ role in assisting in the containment of the epidemic. Organizations can help boost their employees’ compliance with a number of guidelines. That being said, it’s not clear what approach would help achieve such an objective. For example, should companies amp employees’ focus on values (e.g., safety) or should they introduce new rules? And regardless of the option chosen, what framework should be put in place to ensure high cooperation without causing excessive fear?
The effectiveness of values vs. rules may depend on employees’ focus.
Although values may strengthen people’s spirit of cooperation and help guide decision-making in situations that cannot be easily predicted, they, too, suffer from self-serving interpretations and rationalizations. Compared to values, rules are rigid and inflexible and may have the effect of being too prescriptive. Yet, rules underscore the importance of compliance, which, theoretically, would befit the needs of a crisis such as that of COVID-19.
Indeed, whether companies use rules to manage the current situation instead of values may depend on the state of mind of employees and the organization’s own ethos and climate.
Research shows that when people hold a promotion focus, they tend to give more attention to opportunities and gains. This, in turn, makes them more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. Conversely, when they hold a prevention focus, they give precedence to duty and responsibility, which is why they are more likely to engage in risk-averse conduct. Given the unique effects of these two types of orientations, it’s not surprising that whether employees hold one or the other may also affect their ability to comply with ethical principles and safety norms.
Not only does a promotion focus increase the likelihood of breaking the rules, but also, rule-breaking behavior is most likely when people hold such a type of focus in an environment that also reinforces a promotion orientation—as is the case in a culture with a strong aspirational timbre. This is why organizations with employees who showcase a promotion-oriented state of mind and that wish to increase employees’ compliance with norms to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 should choose a rules-based approach. Rules, in this case, can help to correct people’s stronger-than-usual appetite for risk.
Calibrating values with a preventative frame and using implementation plans.
Imagine that just before the coronavirus crisis, ACME management introduced a new bonus plan. Under the new plan, employees can earn significant rewards provided they successfully meet their targets. The bonus plan is the type of situational factor that can trigger a promotion orientation thereby making people more focused on gains and less sensitive to risk.
In the absence of any corrective measures, ACME’s employees may tend to give priority to business opportunities while discounting the importance of certain precautions. It’s possible that in deciding whether they should travel to certain destinations or not, employees might pay little attention to the latest information about the state of the epidemic in those areas. This biased thought process might become more widespread if, for example, ACME relied on communications that conveyed a type of message like “In our organization, we aspire to and strive for high safety.” Though inherently constructive, the aspirational nature of this message would end up strengthening employees’ promotion focus.
Indeed, in this case, if ACME wished to bolster compliance with health safety measures and help reduce the coronavirus spread, it should actively foster a prevention orientation as such a focus would help bring about a renewed sensitivity to risk. ACME could do this by aptly framing the right type of principles of conduct rather than by relying on overly constrictive rules.
For example, ACME could zero in on principles like Safety, Well-being, and Accuracy. Additionally, it could frame these principles in preventative terms by overtly assigning all ACME employees the responsibility to engage in behaviors that ensure safety, protect their own and others’ well-being, and avoid misinformation. Such an approach would help reinforce ownership at the individual level while, thanks to the emphasis posed on actions like “ensuring, protecting, and avoiding” also prime a risk-averse orientation.
Finally, ACME could help employees manage high-risk situations by providing its workforce with agile rules framed as implementation plans. These plans would be if-then expressions that help employees internalize and automatize the type of responses that can reduce contagion risk in the face of unsafe scenarios. For example, one such rule might be, “If I travel to a red zone, then I’ll check my temperature every single day for the next 14 days.” Simple implementation plans, like the one described, help people routinize and execute preventative behaviors thereby increasing the likelihood of more desirable outcomes. As such, these plans represent an effective source of increased self-regulation when managing health-related conduct risks.
While there is no doubt that organizations can play a strategic role in supporting governments to control the coronavirus epidemic, companies must play this role by taking into account both internal and external circumstances. An organization-level approach to this highly dynamic area of risk should be flexible, smart, and entirely consistent with a savvy evaluation of current internal climate and culture factors. This approach must include pressures employees face at work, characteristics of the organization’s baseline compliance program, and the organization’s business operating model.