Ebola is an STD and other business lessons

One morning, I get this text from my wife:

“I’m meeting with the medical aid worker in an hour to talk about Ebola…Got any questions for her?”

My wife — who studies issues in global health — scored an informal, off-the-record meeting with a medical aid worker who was one of the first responders to the 2014–2016 Ebola virus epidemic in East Africa.

Do I want to ask any questions? Of course.

My day job is helping companies improve their teams and processes, and I love getting to ask questions of experts in a field. I jumped at the chance to ask a few questions second-hand. And, well, her answers revealed some great business lessons, too.

What is one fact I’d be surprised to learn about Ebola?

Medical Aid Worker: “Ebola is spread through direct contact with another person. Luckily, we had a lot of Ebola survivors with this strand of the outbreak. And, typically people are symptomatic within the first 21-days. But, what we learned was the virus can remain in a man’s semen for up to nine-months. So, we saw cases of men surviving an infection, going back to their village, and infecting others by having sex.”

Business Lesson: Sometimes we think we’ve got it figured out when we might not. Aid workers initially thought proof of survivorship was enough because the virus wasn’t detectable in the bloodstream; but, there was another source of potential transmission.

We come up with a solution to a problem — even in a team setting — and we declare it “mission accomplished” before we’ve begun to understand the further implications or ramifications of this solution or whether we’ve addressed all issues of the problem. Instead, leaders should “battle-test” proposed solutions, look for gaps, and encourage others to play the contrarian, even — perhaps especially — within a group-derived solution.

How were you received when you and your team first landed on the ground?

Medical Aid Worker: “We thought that when we went in, we’d be hailed as the heroes coming to save the day. Instead, we were met with suspicion and resentment. The local population saw Westerners arrive, and then people get sick. We were assumed in many villages to be the cause of the infections. Even after helping to curb the infection, we weren’t always welcomed.”

Business Lesson: It feels good to be the hero. But, sometimes coming into a meeting or approaching a problem with the solution has the opposite effect of what we had hoped. Why? Perception matters, and understand this perception helps leaders better approach the issue.

While we might look for applause and accolades, other people may resent someone else coming in to solve THEIR problems. Known as the “Savior Complex,” it can cause animosity between both sides — those who have the issue and those who want to help solve it. If you or your team is proposing a solution to an issue, be particularly self-aware of your motivations, how you are coming across to others, and how you proposing your solutions. As the example illustrates, even coming to save lives can be met with misunderstanding, resentment, and even hostility.

What was one process that you saw that needed to be changed?

Medical Aid Worker: “In one region we worked, the hospital had zero cholera cases for the entire year. None. This is statistically impossible in that area, as cholera is commonplace. Turns out, patients coming in with Ebola exhibit fever and stomach discomfort. Patients coming in with cholera exhibit similar onset symptoms. The hospital was sending anyone with those symptoms to the Ebola ward, where many cholera patients then contracted Ebola; because of their already compromised immune system, they often died. In the wake of the outbreak, clinics misdiagnosed patients, and cholera cases became ‘0’ because they died from Ebola.”

Business Lesson: Sometimes, we misdiagnose. The company has come up with the “solution” and/or protocol that is widely in place, and so that solution gets applied to many cases/issues without adequately checking to see if they fit. Or, to say this differently, we came up with a hammer, so all we see are nails.

Sometimes it’s a technology that suddenly needs to be used “everywhere” (even for processes that have been running fine without it) or a social tool, like leadership training (“The director liked this leadership guy, so we’re going to make everyone a leader in the company and implement mandatory trainings!”), where we see broad solutions applied inappropriately across the company. Be careful of new systems and tools; check each situation they’re going to be applied to, and make sure you aren’t “killing patients” by exposing them to an unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, solution.

The take-away? It can be eye-opening to look to other people and areas we can learn from. Engaging outside contacts often gives you a new perspective, expands the conversation, and creates cross-functional lessons learned.

By asking a few questions of a medical aid worker, I was reminded that we need to come up with multi-angled problem-solving processes, to empower the contrarians (especially within team settings), be mindful of a Savior-complex and engage with multiple stakeholders, and to be aware of misdiagnosing and applying solutions beyond their applicability.

by Christian Diamond
Partner @ Middlerock Partners

This article was first published on the Middlerock Partners website at middlerock.com; see what else we’re thinking about company culture, executive leadership, and corporate success.