A mass prayer in Bangladesh caused a world-wide outcry: Thousands of people gathered on an open field in the town of Raipur to chant healing verses against the Corona Virus. This happened at a time as COVID-19, known to transfer a highly infectious respiratory disease, has caused that countries and people all over the globe are locked down and consciously practice social distancing to slow down or prevent its spread.
International media questioned: How on earth could people gather in mass prayers against the virus while at the same time creating a perfect ground for it to spread?
Similar in Bali, Indonesia: On the days around the Hindu celebration Nyepi on 25 March 2020, at a time where the country has been practicing social distancing for more than 10 days, thousands of people gather for cleansing rituals and prayers. Obviously ignoring the governmental health advices to stay at home and not involve in any kind of larger gathering.
Maybe you´ll catching yourself shaking your head in disbelief while reading these examples and carefully practicing social distancing in your home office. How could people be so ignorant towards a threat? And why are they, actually?
But do they really ignore?
The Impact Of Culture … On Everything
An explanation we find in culture. Yes, it is culture that makes people putting themselves amid crowds and at risk in times of COVID-19.
Culture is our values and beliefs that we share with a group of people and that we consider normal, that make sense to us and that let us practice routine activities. In this definition, the emphasis lies on “belief”: You and me and all other people act upon their deep beliefs. A belief is your way how you understand and view the world. And if your worldview says that chanting prayer will create a good spirit and therefore prevent disease, no matter what virologists say, then you will do that. Then, your belief ranks higher than rational data from the medics. This is not ignorance but prioritization.
It is very hard to behave against your beliefs since they influence nearly everything you think and do. And these were only examples that have been covered by international media due to their size (Bangladesh) or popularity (Island of Gods tourist destination Bali).
When observing my immediate environment in Central Java, Indonesia, where society is built on a very strong community value, where the interpersonal space is much smaller than elsewhere and where being alone is often considered a nightmare, I realize that my neighbors also have a hard time with putting social distance into practice. During COVID-19 times, people hang out together in streets like normal. And every morning the local vegetable sale is stormed by elbow-kicking women, squeezing and pushing through narrow corridors on the search for best cooking ingredients. And nobody wears a mask. Not to speak of the daily practice of Sholat, the Muslim prayer in Mosques throughout the country. Social distancing?
But I don´t want to discuss the success of COVID-19 social distancing regulation in Indonesia. Instead, I believe that these examples tell us something very important about people facing cultural change.
Yes, it is hard to change your everyday behavior. To be able to do so, you will need to adjust your values and beliefs that are related to a certain topic. Ever tried it? Speaking out of experience, it easily can shake your life in its foundation…
Managing The Headwind Of Resistance
Every leader knows how much resistance blows against her once a change project is announced in the company. Some team members don´t understand why a change is necessary, others understand it but do not like it. That´s why announcing a change, a new program, a new everyday life order will not directly lead to a new behavior.
Cultural change needs to be managed. Every change needs to involve people that are affected by the change and help them to understand that another “normal” also makes sense and ensures a safe life or prosperous business. This doesn´t happen from one day to the other.
Human feelings and the human mind need time to digest, to sort things out, to deal with a new reality. People need time to understand and it needs time to listen to their concerns. It needs efforts to draw the vision of a “new normal”, to be able to see it and it needs some Aha-effects too. No matter if in Indonesian society or in a company that is going through transition.
What I want to say is that, when confronting people with a new reality it is not enough to just announce it. You should rather pay attention to their beliefs to understand the drivers of their behavior. A new reality has to make sense – not only in a rational, cognitive way, but rather in the gut so that it “feels it makes sense”. We are able to change our viewpoints, however, only when we feel somehow psychological safe and trusted. But this shall be discussed at another point.