Looking back at 2020 - a lost year?

How will we remember the year 2020?

As a year of retrenchment, as a year of rethinking, as a one-off slip of "normality"?

The words of the year - "Corona pandemic" in Germany, "baby elephant" in Austria, "systemically important" in German-speaking Switzerland - indicate that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was in focus.

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This also had consequences for the Mind your business newsletter. While the January issue focused on the topic of founding or expanding a business (and dealt with relevant biases), the February issue already contained the following sentence: " My personal recommendation is to take the issue seriously, but without panicking, and above all to listen to the medical recommendations and to check the facts - in this way we can effectively reduce (though not completely exclude) personal risks. I can still sign this sentence today.


Was 2020 a lost year? 

That undoubtedly depends on what conclusions we have drawn from the crisis. 

We have experienced a lot, much of which we did not expect at the beginning of the year – I will pull out a few points and take a closer look at them.


  • Our handling of uncertainty and insecurity - what have we observed? 

We humans find it difficult to deal with novel situations and a changed context, our patterns and in-built "short-cuts" then no longer work.

Whereas they still work (in a mechanical sense), they no longer fit. A popular question in introductory workshops on de-biasing is: how do I recognise when biases are active in me?

Well, here we have all had ample opportunity in 2020 to observe ourselves in situations of uncertainty and insecurity. Some may have engaged in panic buying in March, others may have initially downplayed the issue only to succumb to the power of images (e.g. from Italy). Perhaps these same people then shopped in the shopping centre later in the year, largely unconcerned, when the daily rates of new infections were a factor of 10 higher than in spring. 


What does this mean? On the one hand, that we adapt relatively quickly to new circumstances and develop new patterns again over time. On the other hand, these "old friends" in the sense of strong biases were very visible throughout the year - the crisis therefore did something to us personally. System 1 often prevailed, the ratio then came up short compared to emotion. The control mechanism failed, many a decision was probably wrong (viewed objectively in retrospect).


Is that bad? Well.

Per se no, because biases are simply part of being human. 

If these biases turn our most important decisions into negative outcomes, then yes.

The opportunity is to use our reflective side (our System 2) in a targeted way to gradually change our individual patterns. Otherwise, we may have had more experiences with partially costly wrong decisions, but do nothing about it. Then we make the same mistakes again.


  • The opportunity for reflection - did we use it?

So, we have gained a lot of experience in a new context - and seen how we do in the process. This is not only true individually, but also for companies or organisations and their teams. Many have noticed that finding their way in the crisis was a consequence of what they had already invested before. I am not referring so much to technical infrastructure or the like, but to organisational preparations such as crisis plans or individual investments in self-management or the development of personal resilience.

These experiences and the feedback from almost 12 months outside the comfort zone are excellent for drawing conclusions and learning.

This allows us to shape the future differently, right now. 

How can this look like? Get to the heart of strengths & weaknesses > understand what our response patterns and triggers look like > develop additional options for action (response-ability) > implement, assess their usefulness and improve as needed. Sounds easy, but it is not - it takes focus & perseverance, sustainable change takes time.

No doubt not every person or organisation will be able or willing to do this. As a result, the next crisis will probably have a similar effect to this one. Then 2020 was indeed a lost year.

In any case, we have a choice!


  • Leadership and trust in the crisis - how did it work?

Leadership was challenged in many ways this year. Firstly, because it was necessary and demanded in order to create clarity, transparency and perspectives. We also had many experiences in this regard - in politics, in health management, in schools, in companies, but also in the private sphere. Good leadership in the broadest sense could certainly make the difference in how people felt in and after the crisis.

Secondly, leadership was challenged in the sense of being demanding and exhausting for the leaders. In times of uncertainty, the gaze inevitably goes to the formal and informal leaders who are permanently in the spotlight. In bad weather, the quality of the worn equipment becomes apparent. In a crisis, the quality of the personal equipment becomes apparent, especially in terms of resilience, reaction patterns in constantly changing conditions and the ability to persevere.


The crisis management course at the University of Michigan (for details see the September newsletter) showed me how important communication is in a crisis situation. In order to do this effectively, preparation is needed - here primarily with a focus on the different stakeholders and their interests.

This year we have had numerous experiences of how well and effectively this has been done. Leadership is challenged here because it has to give people confidence. In a challenging period like this year, empty words and orchestration are only enough up to a certain point. 

Making decisions, communicating and creating trust – these are central qualities in leadership that are a prerequisite for successful implementation of measures.

How good were we ourselves at this? 

What could we observe? 

Where are there gaps that need to be closed?


  • Conclusion:

2020 was challenging, exhausting, unfamiliar - was it a year to forget?

Yes, if we do not learn anything from it.

Based on the topics described, during this year we probably had more impulses than ever before to observe, to question our behaviour and preferences, to shape working relationships and leadership differently and much more.

Many have already experienced that their earlier investments in resilience, flexible working relationships or broader perspectives have had a positive impact. These people will build on this and move on.

So many others have used 2020 to start making changes. 

Still others want to go back to old routines until the next crisis.

Which group do you belong to?