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Brain circuits

Managing mixed emotions coming back to the office: stamping out egoism

Published 14 May 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

As things get back to normal, we will see at least some work travel and some converging in offices once again.

It will give rise to a great deal of positive emotions, as teams enjoy social contact once more. But it will also see the surfacing of tensions.

These can be broken down into coming out of isolation, impulse control on the part of leaders and the vaccination haves and have nots.

The vaccination haves and have nots

Some will get the vaccine fast, while other will have to wait (if indeed they want to have it), and that is going to lead to a tension based on egoism versus being considerate and fair to others.

It’s a tension that is in fact widespread right now. But there is no place for egoism in the pandemic recovery, whether we are talking about lower-level employee dynamics or the boardroom.

Have you thought about how to manage the vaccinated and the non-vaccinated in your team?

As more people meet up in person, you should anticipate the appearance of defense-mechanism splitting. This is the tendency to split the world up simplistically into good versus bad, or evil versus non-evil. Ultimately, people do this subconsciously to decrease anxiety and it gives rise to egoism.

Practically speaking, it means that some might start to feel invincible and ready to go for office drinks, travel and stand too close to colleagues (the “haves”). They might also forget the very existence of hand sanitizer and face masks. For the “have nots”, restriction mode will continue to apply.

The exercise: setting ground rules to dissipate vaccination tensions

Step 1: Get a 5-7 person team together (online or physically). Make sure to include both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and to make sure that the participants are representative of your workforce and are people who set the tone.

Step 2: On a whiteboard – or online board – list all relevant facts related to the vaccinations on one side and all related emotions swirling around on the other. The purpose of this exercise is to compartmentalize so that fact and feeling don’t get mixed up.

It is also to illustrate that the ground rules you put in place (Step 3) should not only address the rational aspects of the situation, but also the emotional ones, such as feeling left out, feeling second-tier, feeling concerned, or feeling like a drag on your colleagues’ desire to finally work and play without constraint.

Step 3: Set the new rules. These might be around how you conduct meetings and lunch breaks, for instance. Do check to see if the solutions and ground rules you have come up with address both the factual and the emotional aspects.

Doing all this may seem unnecessary right now but it will prevent a lot of potential conflict and, as the pandemic has reminded us so forcefully: prevention is preferable to cure.

Further reading

Returning to the Office Sparks Anxiety and Dread for Some


Merete Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders. She runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.


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