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Building Team Consensus Around Complex Topics

Corey Loehr
August 1, 2021
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The Pandemic’s ‘Fourth Wave’ is a Cultural Stress Test. Is Your Organization Ready?

Covid-19 has been the single greatest challenge ever encountered by the health & fitness industry.We pivoted. We persevered. And ultimately, many of us were lucky enough to make it through the darkest days of the pandemic. Vaccines allowed us to ease restrictions and increase capacity. Loyal members have returned en masse, while new customers — many inspired by the weight gain and inactivity that was so widespread during lockdown — have come out in droves.Yet a threat still looms.The vaccination rate in the USA has stagnated around 55% — well short of what’s required to achieve herd immunity. Meanwhile, the ultra-contagious Delta variant is spreading like wildfire, and even those who are fully-vaccinated aren’t immune to its effects.This ‘fourth wave’ of Covid-19 presents a serious stress test for health & fitness club executives.Medium- or large-scale brands with multiple locations may employ tens or even hundreds of team members who remain unvaccinated.For some, the decision could be lightly held. For others, it can be a potential flashpoint of controversy.By now, your organization should already have a vaccination strategy in place. The Global Health & Fitness Association has outlined practical considerations for internal vaccine policies, while research from McKinsey has found immediate incentives such as PTO or monetary bonuses are among the most effective strategies for increasing organizational vaccination rates.On-site vaccinations, nearby pop-up clinics, or assistance in getting vaccinations scheduled can also help move the needle. Yet the way leaders communicate about these complex topics can be even more important than the specific operational initiatives, as they set the standard for attitudes and discourse throughout the organization. The goal is to use this turbulence as an opportunity to strengthen your core values without alienating key team members.While reaching 100% internal consensus on these complex topics is highly unlikely, great executives must see that their teams remain cohesive despite their differing perspectives.

Take Your Team’s Temperature

When it comes to a topic this divisive, operating solely on assumptions can be a grave mistake.A digital survey can help you quickly gain insight to the dynamics inside your organization. Employees at every level should be allowed to surface their perspectives. Making the survey anonymous or semi-anonymous can increase adherence and transparency.Key questions may include:

  • What inspired you to get vaccinated? Alternatively, why have you thus far chosen not to get vaccinated?
  • If you’re unvaccinated, is there anything we can do as an organization to make you more open to receiving the vaccine?
  • How comfortable are you working alongside individuals whose vaccination status differs from your own?
  • What do you think is the best way to navigate interactions with members or co-workers whose perspectives on vaccination differ from your own?

While enhanced visibility to organizational vaccination status could be a goal of such a survey, you also want to probe deeper into the nuanced perspectives of your team. The insights you gather here can influence go-forward initiatives as well as on-going communications and dialogue.

Don’t Outlaw Discussion

Attempts to ban discussion of vaccinations and Covid-19 are likely to backfire.These topics have dominated casual conversation for the better part of the past 16 months. No one appreciates being silenced, and such efforts can lead team members’ frustrations to boil over on social media or in interactions with members or fellow staff.Instead, provide healthy avenues for team members to voice their opinions.Beyond company-wide surveys, this may manifest as an open invitation for deeper discussion. These conversations should occur in person as much as possible, as digital barriers can cause important nuance to be lost and lead to less productive dialogue. If you have to go virtual, a video meeting is superior to a phone call, and a phone call is superior to an email or text.

Lean Into Your Core Values

An organization’s core values define its identity and form its foundation for enduring success.They often include qualities like integrity, honesty, curiosity, and respect. These same principles cannot be abandoned when it comes to the dialogue around vaccines or Covid-19.PJ Pereira is a man with unique insight to this topic. Pereira is one of the advertising executives tasked with marketing Covid-19 vaccines to the public. In a recent podcast interview with The Wall Street Journal, he outlined two market research findings that have helped guide the campaign.“(First), with no respect, there’s no conversation. We have people afraid of what they’re going to put in their body. We have to respect that, right? … You cannot minimize the weight of this decision. It’s a big deal. Period. You have to respect that,” says Pereira.“(Second), we cannot resort to fear. All the anti-vax discourse is based on anecdotal fear conversations. When you’re hit by fear on both sides, you freeze. When you’re confronted by fears of two kinds, you can’t act.” Leaders should set the standard by bringing a respectful, curious mentality to the table. Individuals on both sides of the debate tend to operate in personal echo chambers, mainly engaging with friends, families and media sources that largely mirror their own beliefs.As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”In an increasingly polarized cultural environment, the best leaders are able to see both sides of an argument — even as they have their own opinion.

Don’t Overlook the Vaccine Apathetic

Despite what social media may lead you to believe, not everyone carries a strong opinion towards vaccination. For many, the act is simply low on their list of personal priorities. This “vaccine apathetic” group isn’t necessarily anti-vaccine, but rather believes the vaccine doesn’t really concern them or feel they don’t “need it”. Stacy Wood of the NC State Poole College of Management recently co-authored a paper on this demographic. She specifically highlighted individuals who feel “very healthy” or “very strong” as being more likely to be vaccine apathetic.If you consider who gravitates towards the health & fitness industry, they tend to be stronger, fitter and healthier than the average population. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude our industry likely includes a relatively high number of vaccine apathetic individuals.These people shouldn’t be forced into roundtable discussions or subjected to long Zoom meetings extolling the public health benefits of vaccines. According to Wood, that type of communication often only serves to further demotivate these “low-involvement” decision-makers from taking action.“Decision-makers with low involvement are not motivated to spend the time and mental effort and so they ignore messages with elements that take a lot to process — messages with details, statistics, logical arguments, etc.,” Wood said while discussing the findings.“For (these) people, it’s about making it very convenient and having some immediate personal gains from getting the vaccine … They process immediate personal gains (e.g., incentives and ‘freebies’) and immediate personal losses (e.g., not being able to register for college, having to pay an insurance penalty like for smoking) much more so than long-term gains like gradual reductions of infection rates.”

Take Action on Bad Actors

It’s on leadership to foster a respectful work environment that accommodates a range of perspectives.The standards for behavior and dialogue related to vaccinations and Covid-19 should be deeply rooted in your organization’s existing core values. Once these standards have been established, team members who knowingly violate them must be held responsible. Examples may include verbal insults or threats, inappropriate comments to members, or social media usage that undermines the company’s core values. Just as a leader doesn’t have to share an employee’s opinion in order to value and understand it, an employee need not agree with every facet of an organization’s Covid-19 and vaccination strategy in order to respect it.What healthy conversations have occurred in your workplace around the topic of vaccinations? Has the conversation bought your team closer together?

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