Are You Anchoring Your Nonprofit to the Wrong Data?
Have you changed your views about COVID-19 months into this pandemic? Or are you anchoring to the same views you did in March?
For example, many still believe the false claim spread by many prominent leaders in March that COVID is no worse than the common flu. They protest against public health measures, such as wearing masks, despite high-quality peer-reviewed studies showing that masks save lives.
They also ignore new developments, such as the recent urgent requests by governors to stay at home and telecommute to tamp down the explosive third wave of COVID. Likewise, they fail to pay attention to just-published research showing that restaurants, gyms, hotels, houses of worship, smaller grocery stores and other crowded indoor spaces with prolonged exposure — including workplaces that fit such criteria — significantly increase COVID risk.
We tend to continue treading the same path based on information we initially received. That’s regardless of strong new evidence that our path leads off a cliff. The name cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists give to this dangerous judgment error is anchoring.
This mental blindspot causes us to be too strongly anchored by the initial information we have and fail to update our beliefs sufficiently based on new evidence. That’s even if new evidence is, objectively speaking, much more persuasive.
Anchoring is one of the many cognitive biases that lead us to make poor decisions, regarding the pandemic and other life areas. These mental blindspots impact all areas of our life, from health to politics, and even shopping. They result from a combination of our evolutionary background and specific structural features in how our brains are wired.
Recognizing the danger and impact of cognitive biases helps us make much better decisions and manage risks wisely. For example, in shopping, we can use a decision aid such as this website that reduces our choices to the top 10 options. We can also use effective techniques to address anchoring and help our nonprofits survive and thrive in this pandemic
Anchoring in Social Services: A Case Study
Let’s consider the case of Scott, the executive director of a 100-people social services nonprofit based in Texas that had a lot of difficulty with remote work at the start of the pandemic.
The nonprofit’s leadership team didn’t think they needed to prepare for a disruption of more than a week or two. This was because they followed early guidelines from the CDC to prepare for nothing more than a brief interruption due to a short-term outbreak.
As a result, the leadership team asked everyone to come back to the office as states reopened, despite news reports of an increase in cases in Texas.
However, because of the nonprofit leadership’s perception that COVID-19 isn’t a big deal, neither the leaders nor staff took appropriate precautions when they returned to the office. Most did not follow guidelines on social distancing or wear masks.
Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 in the office traced to an all-hands meeting. Over two dozen staff caught COVID-19, including three senior directors.
Several staff, including the HR director, ended up in the hospital, and two older staff died. This led to a plunge in productivity, attrition and low morale within the organization, which led to the resignations of some key people.
Scott 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.
Adapting to the New Abnormal
When I met with Scott as well as the company’s HR director over Zoom, I told them upfront that they have to start acknowledging the disruptions brought about by COVID-19. Continuing as they did will endanger their nonprofit’s standing and even survival during this pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, most organizations activated their business continuity plans and then just followed along as the months rolled by.
However, I wouldn’t advise continuing with these emergency measures throughout the minimal two years of the pandemic.
Nonprofits need to go beyond emergency measures if they want to survive and thrive in the next few years. You need to adapt to the pandemic and accept the current reality of ongoing waves of restrictions as the new abnormal.
Doing so will include taking a long, hard look at the elements that drive your nonprofit. It will also entail revising or, in some cases, even totally revamping your daily operations and business continuity plan.
Moving Forward From Anchoring
When I last spoke with Scott a few months ago, he told me that after serious deliberation, he called for a leadership meeting to reexamine the facts on COVID-19.
Scott and the HR director came to the meeting armed with the most accurate information on the pandemic that they could find, curated from news sources that give priority to factual reporting.
Fortunately, after being presented with overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 was a serious matter and that they needed to take immediate steps, the senior leadership eventually acknowledged the gravity of the situation. The leadership team then decided to take the following steps:
- Scott held a virtual town hall for the entire organization to debunk the erroneous information on COVID-19 on which the majority of the nonprofit had anchored.
- The leadership team rolled out a comprehensive remote work program, where staff were provided tech and equipment support. People can also report to the office, but it was strictly optional. The leadership team made sure that the office had all the necessary visual and physical cues to encourage social distancing. Reminders on wearing masks were placed strategically.
- The marketing team updated its external and internal collateral to include what the leadership team was doing to make its virtual and physical spaces safe for its staff.
- Scott worked with the HR head on numerous retention efforts to prevent more people from jumping ship.
- The sales team built on the marketing team’s actions. They also reached out to stakeholders who had been previously irked with the company’s slow response to inquiries and complaints. The sales team presented all the changes being made to get the nonprofit up to speed operationally and assured stakeholders of better service.
As a result of these efforts, the nonprofit was able to correct its course and finally get back to a productive path.
The strict policies on working onsite also minimized health risk, thereby lessening the nonprofits risk of accountability in case of an outbreak in the office. This was a heavy load off the senior leadership’s back. They were finally able to focus on major projects and save stakeholder relationships.
Scott informed me how relieved he was that they made the changes once the numbers of COVID-19 cases began to increase, prompting a pause of the reopening process that eventually led to a cycle of reopening and restrictions.
Anchoring causes us to focus on initial information we’ve received, even if it is erroneous. As the pandemic continues to disrupt nonprofits, you need to watch out for misinformed views and beliefs that will hold you back from growth. Keep your nonprofit organization resilient and adaptive by defending yourself from the dangers brought by anchoring.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing, decision making and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work for nonprofit executives. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking nonprofit leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.
As an author, he has written “The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships,” "Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic" and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”
His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking and training on future-proofing, strategic decision-making and planning, and cognitive bias risk management. His clients include innovative startups, major nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral scientist, studying decision-making and risk management strategy over a 15-year span in academia. After getting a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed as a professor at The Ohio State University, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.