COVID-19 has challenged us all to be flexible and adaptable at an amazing rate of speed. Business forecasts that looked strong and growing two months ago have cratered, workloads that were off the charts suddenly disappeared, everyone has had to connect electronically, and a simple handshake is no longer a viable way to greet a colleague or seal a deal.

It’s easy to slide into anxiety and be paralyzed by uncertainty, but how we frame this moment in time is a powerful lever to our mental health and productivity. Leaders have always had to be masters at framing their thinking and the thinking of others, but with the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for that capability grew.

What’s a Frame?

Frames are the boundaries, interpretations and simplifications that we make mentally to understand a situation. We create them instinctively as a result of our experience and the data we take in, and they are particularly valuable in ambiguous or complex situations.

We have both reactive frames, which shaped by our emotional responses, as well as proactive frames, which are shaped by logical thought. These mental filters not only help us make sense of a situation but also influence the range of actions we consider. As a result, our frame can be self-reinforcing, which is the powerful insight behind Chris Argyris’ “Ladder of Inference.”

Frames are an integral part of processing information and making sense of a situation for ourselves. They are also a valuable tool to help leaders convey information to others.

Why Do Frames Matter Now?

In these complex days of the spread and aftermath of coronavirus, our mental frames can be both a help and a barrier to clear thought.

The initial frame for most organizations and leaders was a focus on short-term disruption and anxiety: considering what to do about loss of revenue and how to help employees manage working from home. Government agencies and companies established crisis teams, and our frame was to mitigate loss and manage immediate change.

While that reactive frame is essential in the early days of a crisis, over time, teams (and leaders) need more. In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins coined the term “The Stockdale Paradox” to describe James Stockdale’s approach to surviving and leading as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. He wrote that leaders need to balance a brutally honest view of today with a rational reason to hope.

Leading the Shift

Leaders may still need to manage the crisis team and make short-term operating decisions, but it’s important not to forget to shift their own perspective and help others shift their frame as well. Considering these questions can help:

    • What possibilities has this disruption has created for you, for your team and for your customers?
    • What new needs are you observing for your team, for your customers and for your suppliers?
    • What capabilities do you have that you had forgotten or overlooked? How can those capabilities help you and your organization in the future?

Framing for possibility is an encouraging approach in these challenging times. It may unleash creativity for leaders and their teams, and it will enable them to see a path even in the face of ongoing uncertainty. And, it will give everyone a rational reason to hope and stay engaged and productive.