Navigating Through Crisis FAQ: What Science Says Leaders Should Do


Faced with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, compounded by a renewed, intense national conversation on racial justice, our attention is challenged like never before.

To meet this moment, great leadership is going to be critical from every corner of society—not just to effect change within organizations but in the public realm, too. While many feel paralyzed by uncertainty, those of us in positions of power have the unique privilege and responsibility to use this moment to create not just a new normal, but a better normal.

To help leaders and teams find their focus, we’ve collected some frequently asked questions in one location and provided a brain-based set of guidelines for each, with links to further resources. Firstly we will share issues relating to you personally, then what you can do for your team, then how to think about this organizationally. We hope these serve you well.

Disclaimer: NLI does not purport to give medical or legal advice, nor make claims about the COVID-19 virus itself.

Take care of yourself

Why do I feel so anxious and overwhelmed?

As humans, we have a deep need to know what’s going on—so we can best protect ourselves—and to exert control over our environment. We also need to feel like we belong to a group, as early humans banded together to find strength in numbers.

However, in this crisis, there is massive uncertainty, combined with a reduced sense of control (or autonomy), and an inability to connect with those we care about. These three factors combine to create some of the strongest stress responses many of us have ever experienced. It is normal and understandable to feel overwhelmed right now. The key is to bring this intense stress back to manageable levels.

What are the most critical things I should be doing to make this easier?

To begin with, it can help to understand your biological responses to this situation, to be able to control them better. Stress you are feeling is your body’s response to a sense of danger or threat. Threat comes in three intensities, level 1, 2, and 3, with level 1 threat being manageable, level 2 being strong, and level 3 being overwhelming. The first step is to recognize the threat levels you are experiencing. With this understanding, you can put in place some “buffers” to help you.

What proactive steps can I take to keep my threat levels low?

Start by identifying what is taking you into a stress spiral and try to reduce those, for example, watching too much news. Next, add positive experiences, such as creating a schedule to help your sense of certainty, identifying what is in your control to increase your sense of autonomy, and connecting more regularly online with loved ones to increase your sense of relatedness.

What can I do when I am at level 2 or 3 threat, in the moment?

Buffers help you reduce the chance of threat. However, if a strong threat kicks in, you may need to address your biological response directly. Sometimes we need a warm drink, or a meal, or to take a walk, or do some deep breathing. Mindfulness exercises can help too.

Support your team

How important is leadership right now? Shouldn’t we all just be getting on with it?

Psychological research has found that leaders play a crucial role-modeling function within teams and organizations—we tend to view them as the prototype for the culture. If leaders begin to panic and sound the alarms, that message will resonate teamwide.

However, if leaders make the effort to send “positive signals” across all five domains of SCARF®—status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness—they can steady their teams and keep people better focused on the tasks at hand. For example, positive status signals can include celebrating daily wins and progress. Certainty signals can involve focusing on clarity over certainty, about timelines and principles. Fairness signals can involve giving parents of young children more flexibility on meeting times.

You can read more about the SCARF® Model here.

Why is it important to cultivate resilience as a leader?

Resilience—our ability and capacity to manage, recover, and learn from stress—is one of the core components of growth mindset. Growth mindset centers around the belief that skills and situations are fluid and can change. It helps us see challenges as opportunities rather than problems, and it helps us see setbacks as chances to learn and grow.

When leaders demonstrate a growth mindset with their actions, they demonstrate to their teams that even difficult times can be an opportunity to foster creative, resourceful thinking, thereby keeping people better engaged.

What should I be telling my team?

The goal of any communications to a wider team is the same as to an individual: Build certainty and autonomy wherever possible. But there’s another goal, too, which is to build relatedness. That’s the sense of belonging we feel when we’re part of a group. As humans, we’re extremely sensitive to being included or left out. Given that social distancing only amplifies our feelings of isolation, it’s up to leaders to create feelings of connection as best they can.

Therefore, anything you tell your team should serve one of those three goals, and ideally some combination of all three. Communicate about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are trying to figure out. Offer people more flexibility in their schedules to account for their new circumstances. And hold more on-camera meetings than you normally might, to build a sense of community.

Isn’t virtual work less productive and effective?

No. In fact, studies have shown that virtual work can surpass in-person arrangements in terms of worker satisfaction, employee retention, and overall productivity. One study even found that companies saved an average of $11,000 per employee by switching to virtual work. Click here to learn more about the benefits of virtual work or here to learn how virtual learning can be better, not worse, than in person learning.

How can I make virtual work easier for my teams?

Virtual work succeeds when people have the sense of certainty, autonomy, and relatedness they need, and when organizations correctly leverage the tools that make virtual work unique. These include video chatting and the processes that enable collaboration, even in remote conditions.

For example, when teams work simultaneously on a given problem or exercise, rather than offering opinions serially, or one at a time, they can get more done in less time. This type of parallel work can happen through voting, such as with thumbs up or down, or brainstorming in a shared Google Doc.

How do I meet this moment of change?

Leaders across industries, around the world, are calling for change. But change in itself isn’t the answer—it must be guided into positive, productive, systemic change. As a leader, you have the privilege of a voice and resources. It’s time to use them to move from outrage to action, and to build a better normal.

Millions of Americans—many of them first-time advocates—have begun to wonder how they can best support the Black community, and other under-represented minorities, both at work and in their personal lives. One concept in particular, allyship, has gained traction as a way forward.

What is allyship and how do I practice it?

Allyship can be defined as when people are aware that aspects of their identities hold more power and influence than aspects of others’ identities, and use their advantaged position to advocate for people in less advantaged positions.

Research shows that while a healthy majority of workers express a desire to be allies, far fewer know how to actually go about it. NLI’s allyship model lays out a framework to help leaders to begin the journey of allyship. It involves three crucial steps: Listen Deeply, Unite Widely, and Act Boldly. Each is equally essential to supporting your team and driving the change we need.

Support from NLI

How is NLI helping companies get through all this?

We’re doing our best to build solutions that cater to leaders of varying needs. To date these have included hosting free public webinars on what science says leaders should do during times of crisis; designing custom virtual events for organizations; and building a B2B product called FOCUS: The Neuroscience of Thriving Through Crisis, meant to give organizations the resources to build a better normal.

Where should I go if I want more resources?

You can read more about our solution, FOCUS: The Neuroscience of Thriving Through Disruption, on our website. You can also subscribe to our blog and register for an upcoming webinar to stay in the loop on what we’re up to. For more general updates, you can join our mailing list by filling out the form at the bottom of our homepage.

Author: Dr. David Rock

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