In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Liuba Belkin about two recent studies that shine light on how the federal government and employers, respectively, could improve the way they respond not only to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to future crises as well.

Belkin is an associate professor and the director of the Management Program in Lehigh’s College of Business, and holds the Axelrod Family Endowed Fellowship. Her primary research interests focus on affect and emotions in organizational settings and the role of emotions in negotiations, trust relationships and managerial practices.

She spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript. 

Jack Croft: Since we last talked with you about your research regarding COVID-19, you've published two recent studies I'd like to discuss. I'd like to start with the study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology that examines the relationship between individuals' beliefs in the United States government's benevolence toward them and their compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 guidelines. What were the main findings of the study?

Liuba Belkin: We found that beliefs in government benevolence did, in fact, play a strong role in the public’s compliance with the CDC guidelines, but only among individuals with high general construal levels because they have high levels of positive affect. And in contrast, individuals with low general construal levels, their beliefs in government benevolence were not predictive of their compliance with the CDC guidelines.

Individuals basically use cognitive schemas to encode and retrieve information once they encounter certain situations either more in abstract or concrete manner. So those with high construal levels tend to focus on long-term or big-picture goals—kind of why, the meaning of actions, as well as moral principles and values. And those that have this tendency for low construal levels focus more on short-term goals, small-picture goals—kind of how, the feasibility of actions, as well as more pragmatic concerns devoid of moral implications. Now, why this is relevant? Because construal levels shape how individuals process information and how they act on this information.

Croft: What lessons can the government learn from this that could hopefully make things go smoother next time?

Belkin: The main finding is that those beliefs that the public holds are really important for compliance. And the first practical implication would suggest that the federal government should take note and more clearly and hopefully authentically convey benevolence to the public. This should not be done just in crisis because it's probably too late. This should be done during so-called normal times. And those beliefs are important because they might also help citizens to stay more attuned to the information conveyed by the government regarding the safety and risk-reduction measures during health crises. And they also might help to reduce perceived threats. So they really might help with the mental burden and well-being of their citizens.

Croft: Moving to the second study, this one was published in the Journal of Business Ethics and it deals with interpersonal relationships between employers and employees and what happens when employees, particularly during a time of crisis such as the pandemic, feel like they're being neglected by their employers. What were the main findings?

Belkin: This “felt neglect” is a new construct. And what we meant by that, we were asking participants to let us know if they feel neglected, forgotten, invisible, overlooked by their employers, and uncared for. It might be surprising in the work context, but it proved to be absolutely not during times of crisis. So there's an important general finding in this paper regarding the experience of felt neglect, that employees expect their leaders to care for them in times of crisis. And lack of this care is detrimental not only to employee well-being, but it is also detrimental to organizational function.

And we found that employees' experience of felt neglect has negative implications, first, on the meaning that people assign to their work. And work meaning is another important construct—it communicates to employees their sense of purpose. If their work is meaningless, they will be less likely to engage in it and do something going above and beyond their responsibilities. And what we found is that, indeed, when employees felt neglected, they assigned less meaning to their work, and they were less likely to engage in these organizational citizenship behaviors that could hamper organizational effectiveness during a crisis like COVID-19. … Organizational citizenship behaviors refer to the behavior of employees when they're not just doing their jobs, but going above and beyond their expectations, such as putting extra effort and time in their responsibilities or volunteering for extra tasks or helping each other or helping clients, business customers. When employees engage with those behaviors, there is a high likelihood that the company will be more resilient and, hopefully, recover more quickly after crisis.

Croft: [What are] the common themes between both the government benevolence and the felt-neglect studies?

Belkin: There are two common threads, I would think, in those two articles. First, it's about ensuring that the public or your employees believe that you have the best interests for them at heart. We did not measure benevolence in our [“felt neglect”] study. But I guess when you feel neglected, it also translates to this low belief that you really care, right? So whether you're a government leader [or] organizational leader, you need to signal care and concern for your citizens or your employees. And it is also about clear communication of this concern in your message.

We knew before the pandemic hit that, based on the research my colleagues and I were also doing on electronic communication, that relationships need help in the electronic realm. And when you're in remote [work] mode and when you cannot see your colleagues or talk to your manager, these relationships, to keep them up, you need to communicate more frequently and clearly. Both studies, from different angles, add to research on the importance of clear and frequent communication especially in the middle of the crisis, which is not surprising. It's not really a novel finding.

However, I think there is a new part that we have here with those two studies and other studies we're still in the process of wrapping up is that, especially for the start of the pandemic, that benevolence and trust really matter. And they matter not just to help people feel good or for their well-being and mental health, but they also can increase compliance when people encounter these dilemma situations. Because when they have to choose between their personal interest and give them away a little bit with the collective goal in mind or in organizational context, it's really important for increasing helping behavior of your employees.

Since managers, organizational leaders, play a critical role in supporting employees in crisis, it's important they are communicating regularly with employees and they have personalized attention. And if it's possible at all, when you are in remote work mode, not just communicating about work, but actually quick check-ins, just to listen to your employees, what's going on in their lives, to maintain connection and also show emotional and social support for employees. This is very critical in dire times such as this pandemic or any types of health or other type of crisis.

On the other hand, employers and leaders have to be very sensitive to employee time and also work-life balance goals because we all heard probably of the Zoom fatigue. So overdoing this might lead to surprisingly negative outcomes. Again, as with any prescription or advice, it has to be a common sense kind of balance act.

To wrap up on this, the pandemic has been going for almost two years. And this message about trust and clear communication, I think it remains as relevant as ever. And especially if we look at social context, going back to the first paper we talked about, the way CDC handled their messaging during the last two years, it wasn't always clear. There were many confusions as well in terms of their guidelines, and they cannot be blamed for this entirely, right? There was a lot of uncertainty as well.

But I was recently reading the Washington Post article where they quoted Celine Gounder, who is [an] infectious disease physician who advised the Biden administration during the transition. She lamented that there is tremendous backlash against people in her profession, and it's very demoralizing. And she also said [something] I think echoes what we talked about today, is that the public trust [in] health officials is the lowest at all times now. And public health interventions do not work without trust.

Taking this message, I can say the same thing about organizational context. No matter what managers or organizational leaders try to do, their message or their efforts will not work if there is no trust from their employees and if employees feel that they're being neglected or not supported, not taken care of, especially during crisis.

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Lehigh Business.