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Your brain in a crisis – what should every leader understand about it?

We have not experienced such an exceptional period of uncertainty since the wars. Stress affects people’s well-being, including their cognitive abilities. What should HR and management do to help employees cope during these difficult times?

The global crisis is driving many people into a state of stress. Insecurity, fear for one’s own and loved ones’ health, and concern for livelihoods are all huge stress factors that affect most of us. It is not made any easier by the isolation and news, discussions and thoughts focusing only on the crisis.

The human brain is encoded to respond to extreme stress in a certain way. The phrase “fight or flight” in the moment of danger describes a state in which heart rate and adrenaline rise and all energy is used for the basic functions required for survival.

Stress affects the cognitive problem-solving ability

Even if the human’s life is not acutely under threat, the current crisis can also lead to a significantly increased state of stress. What happens to us then?

To put it simply: thinking narrows down, our brains close the areas required for cognitive thinking and shift resources to the so-called primary reactions. In a state of fear, some may become passive and others go into a hysterical battle against the threat. This state of extreme stress, although necessary in certain situations, is harmful to us in many ways.

First of all, it is a particularly stressful condition; a person cannot stand the alarm state for months. An increase in fatigue is likely. Furthermore, most of us need cognitive problem-solving ability or creativity in our work, which significantly decreases in such a stressful state.

Some react more strongly and visibly than others. However, every HR decision maker and manager should take the natural reactions of the brain into account. So what should the HR directors and managers do?

Increase a sense of predictability, autonomy, cohesion and fairness

David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has developed a model for how the threat the brain is perceiving can be reduced by interaction. This also improves collaboration and performance. By applying this model, every HR expert and manager should now do everything possible to increase, for example, certainty, relatedness, and fairness.

These things are now important in leadership:

1)  Certainty

The future may now seem like a big question mark. Think about how you can create a vision for the future and what things, even small ones, you can tell the employees. For example, you can instruct the management to report on the current situation every Friday morning. You can also say that the effects of the crisis will be analysed, and the results will be reported in a week. That way, there will be a peace of mind for a week and the employees know when there will be more information about possible layoffs. Even saying out loud what you do not know creates more security for the human brain than silence. So now is the time to pay special attention to communication.

2) Autonomy

The possibility to affect the crisis itself may seem small, but there are still many things that we can have an influence on. In a crisis, people need to strengthen their sense of control. Many organisations have moved to WFH, working from home. Therefore, now is not the time for micromanagement. Communicate that you trust your employees and give them the opportunity to for example reconcile their work and family duties in the way they see fit. It’s a good idea to share practical tips, but don’t try to control anything that is not necessary.

3) Relatedness

Now that many are in physical isolation, organisations need to consider all means to increase their sense of belonging. Excellent examples of these have been seen in many organisations, for example in the form of remote coffee breaks. Using video is recommended while you communicate remotely, and humor is great for lowering stress levels.

4) Fairness

It is extremely important to look at this issue now, especially if your organisation has front-line employees who cannot work from home, such as your organisation’s experts and management.

A sense of injustice is inevitable when some workers endanger their own health in order to keep the society functioning. This, of course, is not a reason to ban WFH from those for whom it is possible. However, now is the time to think how you could show appreciation towards those employees working on the front lines. You need the commitment of these workers during and after the crisis.

Also, keep in mind that even a small award can be significant, especially if it is surprising and a genuine improvement in the current situation. What kind of support could you provide for them in their daily lives? Can you for example support them with extra flexibility or make lunch easier for them in some way? HR is often strict about equal benefits. But now it could be seen fair to provide different benefits for employees in different positions!

Take care of your staff’s ability to function

Many companies are now wrestling with financial impacts and trying to survive through this situation. In a crisis, a strict style of leadership easily rears its head. Organisations whose staff maintain their operational capacity and work together for a common goal have better chances to survive the crisis. So take care of your employees!

The text is based on ideas raised by David Rock’s webinar Coronavirus: What Science Says Leaders Should Do. 


About the author

Johanna Lehtimäki is a former HR manager, current consultant and coach, whose heart beats for the development of employee experience and leadership, as well as technology solutions that make every day work easier. Johanna works in Sofigate’s HR Technology team in the Service Management business area.