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Staring Down Adversity and Uncertainty During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted By USFN, Friday, August 14, 2020


by Jeremy B. Wilkins, Esq.
Brock & Scott, PLLC 
USFN Member (AL, CT, FL, GA, MA, MD, ME, MI, NC, NH, OH, RI, SC, TN, VA, VT)

and James Harshaw, Jr., Guest Author 

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the United States and the rest of the world, there are far-ranging impacts at levels both from a health point of view and a socio-economic point of view. Specifically, the impacts on the mortgage default servicing industry, to this point, have been deep. The industry has come to a screeching halt almost overnight from jurisdiction to jurisdiction while also remaining under a cloud of uncertainty for what the future may hold. 

In no time, companies within the industry had business continuity plans tested beyond natural disaster response planning to a global pandemic. Immediately, as revenue streams were abruptly halted, the industry was faced with vendors taking axiomatic remedial measures to bolster viability. Businesses in general were forced to take steps such as seeking Paycheck Protection Program Loans (PPP Loans) from the Small Business Administration, applying for private loans, and instituting salary reductions, furloughs, and layoffs.

Meanwhile, procedural changes were occurring daily across many jurisdictions as state and local governments issued varying forms of “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Consequently, companies’ access to their offices were either limited or cut off altogether. State court systems were also impacted in some fashion with either limited or no access. Seemingly, the one constant premise that has defined the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was situational fluidity intensifying the atmosphere of adversity. 

Jim Harshaw, Jr. knows something about navigating the uncharted waters of adversity. As a University of Virginia wrestler, Harshaw was an NCAA All-American and three-time ACC Wrestling Champion, which helped him develop the mindset needed to transition into his professional career as a speaker, podcast host, and professional performance coach. On his podcast, “Success Through Failure,” he interviews world-class performers like Navy SEALs, Olympic gold medalists, and CEOs, and shares their tactics and strategies with clients and audiences via coaching and speaking. 

All of this has helped Harshaw create an approach to adversity that is reasoned with an immediate calming effect, which can help when adversity is often treated as the "elephant in the room," creating a response of irrational urgency. 

“We tend to react immediately and feel pressed to do so,” says Harshaw. “The most efficient way to react thoughtfully and effectively is to use something I call the ‘Productive Pause.’ I define it as a short period where you pose questions such as 1) What is really important here? 2) What advice would I give someone else in this situation?”

Harshaw feels that it is important not to overreact when confronting adversity from its manifestation. Using his Productive Pause approach, leaders can focus on two characteristics to instill confidence, which can be paramount to leadership. 

“Communication and encouragement [are hallmarks of a leader exuding confidence],” Harshaw stresses. “Leaders undervalue the importance of words of encouragement or even a simple inquiry like, ’How are you doing?’” 

Harshaw’s approach is a simplification rooted in actions that we take for granted at times, almost eviscerating the overall concept of adversity by embracing it and stressing the benefits gleaned by enduring through adversity. “Adversity certainly scares us whether we like it or not. It is not something we seek. However, when we look back on adversity in our lives, we can always see some kind of benefit whether that is something learned or strength gained,” he says. “It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Adversity creates the need to adapt and improve upon the status quo.”                  

Leaders sometimes face picking up the pieces after incurring dramatic, often disruptive changes in the work environment such as furloughs, layoffs, reduction in hours, and reduction in compensation. Mitigation measures will impact employees personally and can lead to a fracture of long-standing employee relationships, consequently the environment created can be devastating to morale which can cripple an organization if not handled properly. Harshaw’s advice goes back to the fundamental tenets of communication being the first steps to building up broken spirits of employees.

“Everybody wants to be heard and understood. Whether it’s my 6-year-old, who is crying because her big brother was mean to her or an employee who is feeling anxious or frustrated due to dramatic changes that have occurred at work,” he says. “In order to help your remaining staff move forward, allowing people to communicate how they feel is an effective way to help people process the current situation. This can be in a one-on-one setting, small groups, or a larger group. Ignoring it and hoping people will just move on will result in distrust, gossip, and long-term problems.” 

Harshaw further suggests considering outside of the box activities and opportunity for leadership to engage staff during times of adversity. 

“People are used to ‘water cooler talk’, a clear delineation between work and home, and other elements of work that we take for granted. Finding ways to replicate these in some small way – even if it is the now common, virtual happy hour – is critical. Employers can also provide access to a group yoga instructor or other creative means to connecting through social and health activities.” 

Harshaw says that to ensure proper communication within an organization, reinforcing the message is key.

“A good format for communicating is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them,” he says, drawing on his public speaking experience “While it sounds like a cute gimmick, it is an incredibly effective tactic and employed by some of the top communicators in the world. In fact, Steve Jobs regularly used this in his communications.”  

As the world fostered isolation as response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harshaw warns on avoiding certain behaviors that could affect communication with staff, colleagues, and industry partners.

“Lines of communication are naturally closed off when we’re not crossing paths in the hallways, exchanging information over water cooler talk, or not visiting clients onsite,” he explains. “Not recognizing the need for human connection and open communication is a surefire way to create indifference and apathy.” As a result, organizations need to find ways to create the personal connection either through emails, text messages, video meetings, etc. This is no substitute for personal interaction but there are ways to bridge the gap in the short term with technology and other resources. 

Harshaw draws from his experience in performance coaching, public speaking, and hosting a podcast to provide the example of resilience during times of adversity by pointing to the story of Erik Weihenmayer. “Erik is a mountaineer. He has summited Mount Everest. He has also whitewater kayaked some of the biggest whitewater rapids in the world in the Grand Canyon. He is also blind. He lost his sight at the age of 13. Erik shows me and everyone else that we as humans have a tremendous capacity for resilience,” explained Harshaw.

As people try to move forward in the face of adversity and find commonality in the goal of achieving sustainable success, Harshaw suggested adhering to core goals.

“Service,” Harshaw responded, without hesitation. “Those organizations who focus on truly serving their employees, customers, clients will be the most resilient. They will build relationships and trust and, as a result, find themselves in a stronger position than even before.”

Even Harshaw's podcast title, "Success through Failure," serves as a type of mantra that can give the audience inspiration.

“We’re all going to fail,” he said. “If my podcast has taught me one thing, it’s that the highest performers in the world — Navy SEALs, Olympic gold medalists, CEOs, New York Times bestselling authors — they all have stories of failure. You, the reader, will also fail. That’s not a reason for you to believe that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, or not capable enough. It’s simply a sign that you’re trying. That you’re moving forward. That you’re on the right path.”

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Spring 2020 USFN Report

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