Lead the way to masking up

Culture  Leadership
17 May, 2021

In a world with COVID, face masks must become a way of life. How can leaders drive the necessary behaviour change?

Along with ensuring that we can get everyone vaccinated urgently on a war footing, practices such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distance will continue to be crucial. As we plan for the resumption of life and work after this lockdown, we need to think about how we can reinforce COVID-appropriate behaviours. These will need to become a part of our daily routine, with no exceptions. We need to accept the criticality of wearing masks the right way, all the time.

This week, my message focuses on how leaders can ensure their team members embrace face masks. By bringing about positive behaviour change, we can turn mask-wearing into a habit, a way of life – which is absolutely necessary in a world with COVID.

Face masks are our new best friend

Given the current pace of vaccine rollout, we will not achieve herd immunity for at least quite some time. As unfamiliar variants surface with alarming regularity, we must continue to cope with new threats in the air. Along with vaccination, face masks and social distancing are the best safeguards we have against the coronavirus. Yet, according to a recent survey, only 50 percent of Indians are consistently wearing masks. And out of these, 64 percent aren’t wearing them correctly (this survey was done in the top 25 cities, so the percentage in the rest of India could be much lower).

Challenges along the way

Despite scientific proofs and overwhelming support from the medical community, there continue to be sceptics and naysayers among us. Then, there are people who wear masks but half-heartedly, flouting the recommended guidelines. We’ve seen it all – from people taking off their face mask as soon as they step into the office, to pulling it under their chin while talking to someone.

Others refuse to wear masks for reasons of convenience and comfort. Admittedly, they can be uncomfortably tight, make you feel hot, fog up your glasses, muffle your voice and hide your facial expressions. Things are made more challenging by the fact that there is no end date in sight. Even those who are currently following the protocols are likely to get fatigued and slack off in the months to come.

Compliance is essential

Unfortunately, this is not one of those situations where we can take an attitude of “live and let live” or “to each his/her own”.

Mask-wearing is crucial if we want life to get back to some sort of normalcy. The only way we can safely start sharing airspace again is when everybody follows the rules.

This is especially true for offices – contained indoor spaces where people work side by side and interact closely for hours on end. All it takes is one “superspreader” to endanger the entire team, and by extension, their families and friends.

How to drive positive change

The standard approach to drive behaviour change is by issuing commands: “Wear a mask.” “Stay six feet apart.” “Wash your hands.” But this doesn’t always yield the best results, as Jonah Berger explains in his Harvard Business Review piece:

Directives aren’t particularly effective in driving sustained behavior change because we all like to feel as if we are in control of our choices. Why did I buy that product, use that service, or take that action?  Because I wanted to. So when others try to influence our decisions, we don’t just go along, we push back against the persuasive attempt….

Our innate anti-persuasion radar raises our defenses, so we avoid or ignore the message or, even worse, counter-argue, conjuring up all the reasons why what someone else suggested is a bad idea. “Sure, the governor said to stay home but they’re overreacting.  Maybe the virus is bad in some part of the country, but I don’t know a single person whose gotten it.  And besides, many people who get it are fine anyway, so what’s the big deal?”

So, how can leaders effectively drive positive mask-wearing behaviours among their team members? Here are eight recommendations to shape your strategy.

1. Run a thoughtful awareness campaign.

Boosting awareness is a straightforward path to increasing mask utilisation. As COVID fatigue sets in, people will need to be reminded about harsh realities like asymptomatic carriers and silent infections. Incorporate key information and imagery around masks and social distancing into your communications – this will help to reinforce the new norm. Some organisations are also getting proactive about combating the spread of misinformation. Take this example from Blue Shield:

In the midst of spikes in COVID-19 infections, leaders at Blue Shield of California developed…a one-minute video “Masks Save lives” featuring up-close, black and white images of everyday people. The video encourages viewers to consider scientific data over opinions with a series of point, counterpoint messages…medical not political, clinical not cynical. 

2. Increase social motivation.

Social reinforcement can be a helpful aid. People are more likely to act in a certain way when everyone around them is doing the same. They also tend to pay more attention to those whom they like and respect. Invite team members across the organisation to take the lead on mask-wearing initiatives, and highlight the voices of admired leaders and popular employees. Teams could even add a dimension of fun by customising face masks, swapping selfies and sharing common mask woes. 

3. Link masks to other accepted safety measures.

According to one study conducted last year, drawing a parallel between wearing masks and wearing seatbelts/helmets proved to be surprisingly impactful. Compared with other types of messaging, this strategy yielded a jump of 3-5 percentage points in mask-wearing. That definitely makes it worth considering as companies shape their communications in the COVID era. In general, simple and politically neutral messages appear to work best. 

4. Make the right types of masks available.

Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, suggests taking the lead from public-health interventions designed to combat the spread of AIDS. Instead of relying on shaming and fear-based campaigns, people should be given easy and free access to face masks. Organisations must provide the correct type of masks (and any other protective gear) to their employees, as required for their jobs.

Basic masks are seen to offer a reasonable level of protection for those who have limited exposure and aren’t at high risk of contracting COVID. In riskier settings, better masks are recommended. For example, taking a flight, meeting with external vendors or working on the front lines. Leaders should also offer stronger safeguards to vulnerable team members, such as older adults or anyone with co-morbidities.

5. Increase people’s sense of control.

Top-down directives don’t always work because they take away people’s agency over their own lives. Thoughtful leaders can increase their team members’ sense of control by taking a subtler approach that encourages (rather than instructs) them to make the right choice. Berger suggests highlighting the disconnect between people’s recommendations for others versus their own actions: 

Take staying at home. For young people who might resist, ask what they would suggest an elderly grandparent or a younger brother or sister do. Would they want them out, interacting with possibly infected people?  If not, why do they think it’s safe for them to do so? 

People strive for internal consistency. They want their attitudes and actions to line up. Highlighting misalignment encourages them to resolve the disconnect.

6. Ask questions to increase buy-in.

You can also ask your team members questions that encourage reflection and increase commitment. As Berger explains: 

Questions shift the listener’s role. Rather than counter-arguing or thinking about all the reasons they disagree, they’re sorting through their answer to your query and their feelings or opinions on the matter. And this shift increases buy-in. It encourages people to commit to the conclusion, because while people might not want to follow someone else’s lead, they’re more than happy to follow their own…. 

In the case of this crisis, questions like “How bad would it be if your loved ones got sick?” could prove more effective than directives in driving commitment to long-term or intermittent social distancing and vigilant hygiene practices.

7. Create structural changes.

Bring changes into the physical workspace to ensure that mask-wearing becomes a way of life. Make masks available at the entrance, designate meeting rooms as “mask-only zones” and put up signs thanking people for wearing masks. In addition, social distancing must also be reflected in the layout of the office. Desks should be placed at a safe distance from each other and room capacities should be suitably reduced. By adopting a hybrid model going forward, companies can minimise the risk to their employees.

8. Make use of nudges.

In behavioural economics, there is a concept called “nudges” – small interventions that guide people towards healthier behaviours. Nudges could help to curb the bias against mask-wearing by establishing it as a social norm. Experts have suggested idea like creating localised communications and delivering messages through trustworthy, non-threatening figures. Nudges should be very simple to act on, without any ambiguity or excess emotion. An IDB article describes some nudges to support the practice of wearing face masks: 

Governments and businesses can even appeal to people’s sense of fashion, as when waiters wear stylishly colored and designed masks to encourage restaurant clientele to do the same. Or, as is already happening in Latin America, when local manufacturers produce dazzling masks with logos of soccer teams, artistic renderings of animals, and political or social messages. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, setting an example, already has appeared on television with a mask sporting the country’s name. 

As we wait for the world to get vaccinated and achieve herd immunity, face masks are necessary. Yet, due to a variety of reasons, some people continue to resist this practice. Leaders must employ a variety of strategies to help their team members adopt mask-wearing as a way of life. This will be one of the most critical components of resuming life after this lockdown.


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