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How the Pandemic Changed Leaders' Psychology

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on workforce mental health and well-being, with employees around the world continuing to experience higher levels of stress than pre-pandemic levels. While organizations have made efforts to address the pandemic’s impact through improved work-life balance and remote work options, we know less about how executive leaders’ mental health evolved during the pandemic.

Examining how the pandemic altered the psychology of executive leaders offers valuable insights into their decision-making processes and strategic directions that ultimately impact company performance.

Recent research conducted by Mesquiti and Seraj reveals the specific psychological changes that CEOs experienced over the course of the pandemic and its aftermath. Using psychological measures of language available from Receptiviti, Mesquiti and Seraj analyzed thousands of CEO earnings call transcripts to track shifts in their cognition and their attentional focus throughout the pandemic.

Pandemic-related stress likely increased CEOs’ cognitive load, diminishing their capacity to think and communicate analytically

Mesquiti and Seraj assessed how the pandemic influenced CEOs’ cognition by measuring the frequency with which they used language that represents reduced or elevated levels of analytical thinking and cognitive processing. Analytic language indicates a more formal and impersonal style of thinking and communicating that reflects greater abstraction and complexity. In contrast, cognitive processing language reflects one’s cognitive load or the degree of mental effort one exerts in a given situation. Mesquiti and Seraj’s analyses showed that CEOs’ analytic language decreased, while their cognitive processing language increased, after the start of the pandemic and the resulting quarantine.

Oftentimes, a stressful experience—such as navigating the increased complexities of day-to-day life during a pandemic—can lead to a higher cognitive load and depleted mental resources. Therefore, CEOs’ increased cognitive processing language and decreased analytic language may suggest that pandemic-related stress contributed to their increased cognitive load, diminishing their capacity to think and communicate as analytically as they did prior to the pandemic.

Of note, these shifts in cognition were not unique to CEOs. Mesquiti and Seraj found a similar pattern of results in the general population when assessing language used in posts and comments in several different US city subreddits. Receptiviti’s linguistic analyses of frontline healthcare workers’ Reddit posts also demonstrates a comparable increase in cognitive processing and decrease in analytic thinking during the pandemic.

CEOs were less focused on their colleagues and more focused on keeping their company afloat

Mesquiti and Seraj additionally found that CEOs’ self-focused language increased following the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Greater use of self-focused language serves as a marker of depression, anxiety, or psychological distress. In other words, when experiencing distress or negative emotions, people are more likely to be self-focused and engage in introspection. CEOs’ increased self-focus at the beginning of quarantine and social distancing mandates—which coincided with similar increases in the general population—may indicate elevated levels of distress.

CEOs also showed decreased rates of collective-focused language in direct contrast with the general population, whose rates increased after the pandemic. Collective-focused language is often used in the context of shared crises, signaling affiliation, social connectedness, and—in this case—the notion that the general population was experiencing the same trauma together. On the other hand, CEOs' decreased collective-focused language and increased self-focused language suggest that, during a critical time when their company’s survival was in question, they were less connected with their colleagues and more focused on keeping their company afloat.

The pandemic led to long-term, sustained changes in CEOs psychology

The psychological shifts reflected in CEOs’ language during the pandemic have yet to return to pre-pandemic norms, emphasizing the potential long-term impact of the pandemic on their cognition and attentional focus. How might these shifts in CEOs’ psychology affect their organizations? Could their decreased collective focus hinder their ability to foster a collaborative workplace culture, resulting in decreased workforce engagement and performance? While Mesquiti and Seraj’s work links the trajectory of the pandemic with psychological changes in CEOs, further research is necessary to determine how such changes impact organizations’ financial performance and the performance, well-being, and engagement of their workforces.

Interested in analyzing executives’ language to understand the psychology of leadership? Receptiviti’s API provides measures of analytic, cognitive processing, and self- and collective-focused language that can be used to conduct analyses like the one discussed in this article. Contact us to learn more.

To read Mesquiti and Seraj’s full paper, follow the link below:

Mesquiti, S., & Seraj, S. (2023). The psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on business leadership. PLOS ONE, 18(10), Article e0290621.


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