COVID-19 has created a cascade of unprecedented changes to how we work, live and interact.

With many organisations moving online, managing restructures, significant job loss and transformation of existing roles and responsibilities, leaders need to be consciously aware of the impact of stress on individual and team performance.

Certain aspects of organisational behaviour can trigger threat reactions in people that impede their effectiveness and limit their ability to contribute to the success of the team. Research in neuroscience can inform our response to such situations, as the neural functioning of individuals within the workplace underlies the social nature of high performance.


What happens to us in stressful environments

The brain is a social organ. Studies by UCLA have found that when we feel excluded from play or rewards, our brains trigger a response from the same neural regions associated with the distress that comes with physical pain. This neurophysiological link has been explained as evolutionary, a developmental hangover from the dependency of infancy. As UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Liebermann puts it, “To a mammal, being socially connected to caregivers is necessary for survival”.

This neurological response has a number of implications for business and leaders navigating this current crisis – especially in regards to remote working and communicating organisational changes driven by COVID-19.

A person who feels their position and work to be valued, by their leaders, solely as an economic and rational transaction (labour for money) will likely feel betrayed, unrecognised and disengaged.

Research shows that each time a person feels like this, it is physiologically and psychologically analogous to a ‘blow to the head’ and is processed in the brain in the same way as physical pain. Naturally, our conscious selves rationalise the discomfort, but if this situation is chronic and ongoing, it is more likely that employees will begin to desensitise in self-protection. They will effectively push the discomfort away, so as to not feel it consciously. This shutting down of large parts of our response pathways disables us, making high-performance impossible.

Many studies, including Paul MacLean’s infamous “Triune Brain” theory, look at how fear responses negatively impact the quality of mental functioning. In more mild circumstances, the emotional centres associated with the limbic brain will interfere with the circuitry of the logical neo-cortex. In extreme circumstances, our ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response gets triggered, creating a chemical reaction that entirely hijacks the brain’s emotional centre, the amygdala, making logical thinking impossible.

However you conceptualise it, high emotion is disastrous for the adaptive thinking required for complex problems – so critical for ethical decision making.

Physiologically, the threat response ties up glucose and oxygen, as lower areas of the brain, more intimately concerned with survival, take precedence over higher centres. In threat situations, these resources are withheld from working memory, impairing the processing of new information or ideas, and slowing analytic thinking, creativity and problem solving.


Addressing the needs of the individual and the organisation

We’ve all heard that adults are poor learners, fundamentally intractable, or that their natural response to change is resistance. While elements of these statements are true, what is also true is that the adult brain continues to be highly plastic; albeit not as much as children or infants. That means that not only can behaviours change, but that the neural networks that underlie all thought and behaviour are in fact changing every day.

To increase the chances of your business being high-performing, David Rock’s SCARF Model, as outlined in his paper “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others,” suggests that leaders should look at how the organisation deals with the following aspects of individual functioning in the collective social system.


1. Certainty

Our brains are wired to crave certainty. This desire is underpinned by neural circuits that register unexpected events as gaps or errors. Because an assumed pattern is no longer functioning as it should, it is registered as a threat.

Think about how you respond when the car in front slams on the brakes. Normally, we can do multiple things at the same time when we drive – hold a conversation, listen to music, monitor what’s going on around us, think about the shopping list – but faced with a potential accident, your working memory is diminished. All other activities and thoughts must cease as you shift full attention to the potential threat ahead.

Some uncertainty can be intriguing and enjoyable; too much leads to panic and bad decisions. For many people right now, the levels of uncertainty – combined with imminent health and employment risks – will be triggering this aspect of the ‘fight or flight’ response. This impedes their capacity to access creative thinking and good decision making.

Of course, certainty is an illusion. However, people need a semblance of certainty in order to perform. Leaders need to build confidence in their people so they, in turn, can trust in individual and collective capability to work through whatever comes. Keeping a clear and regular stream of communication around how decisions are being made increases trust and promotes engagement. Chunking larger problems into shorter time frames also helps people feel more certain.


2. Status

As humans, our relative status within social systems matters. This is the basis for all competition, social hierarchy, and, conversely, much social unrest. Many organisations have processes and practices that threaten people’s status. Hierarchy reinforces a notion of ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’, while performance appraisals and coaching generally place one person in the position of being more knowledgeable, capable and powerful than the other. Unless these interactions are carefully considered and thoughtfully executed, they will feel threatening to an individual’s status.

Actions that enhance status include private, as well as public, recognition. In addition, the quality of interactions from leaders with their people can raise the self-status of those who sit lower in the hierarchy. Therefore, one of the most important (albeit intangible) skills of a leadership team is their capacity to interact with others in a respectful and status-enhancing way.

With staff working digitally, and from home, leaders need to innovate and find new ways to show this recognition. This will make people feel seen and valued for the work they do.


3. Autonomy

When people feel they can execute their own decisions, without interference, their felt stress is lower. In a 1977 study, residents of aged care facilities who had more agency and decision making rights, lived longer and healthier lives. While what they were deciding about was insignificant; their autonomy was critical. In another study, franchise owners principally left corporations citing work-life balance. Once in their own business, they generally worked longer hours, for less money, and nevertheless reported better work-life balance, because they were making their own decisions.

Delegation systems, hierarchy, confusing reporting lines, moribund policy and procedure, and parochial mindsets can all contribute to less agency for individuals in businesses. Often people are not aware that they are not delegating, that they are effectively withholding decision making from others.

Lack of autonomy is also closely linked with the phenomena of people not working ‘at the right level’. When leaders find themselves working at a level of complexity lower than where they should be working, the flow on to the rest of the organisation is usually inevitable.


4. Relationships

Perceived difference is another human threat-trigger. Collaboration, trust and empathy are predicated on perceiving that the ‘other’ is from the same social group as we are. The decision of friend or foe is usually made in milliseconds.

The organisational implications for bringing groups together are profound. Forming new relationships at this time, such as buddy systems or mentor programs, need to be carefully thought through so as to minimise the potential to ‘spook the horses’. The creation of productive strategic relationships requires repetition via multiple, sequential opportunities  and reinforcement through the removal of organisational impediments.


5. Fairness

Fairness is a cognitive construct that motivates people so strongly they will persist in situations that are manifestly unfavourable because they value a perceived fairness on the part of an organisation or a cause. Consider how people historically have volunteered to fight in wars that are not their own, such as the Spanish Civil War, and are prepared to die based on apparent fairness.

People not only want to avoid being unfairly discriminated against, they will also often feel uncomfortable if they find themselves being unfairly favoured by a person or a situation.

Organisationally, the implications are similar and connected to that of certainty. People will be much more accepting of decisions and processes, as fair, if they are transparent.

Fairness is also related to status in that people will feel fairly dealt with if they perceive they are respected as a person and employee. These principles are often coded as ‘natural justice’. In some ways, fairness is an amalgam of the previous four areas of concern.


What leaders need to think about

The upshot for leaders is this – when you trigger a threat response in others, you make them less effective. When you make people feel good about themselves, clearly communicate your expectations and give agency through appropriate delegations, people feel a reward response which is intrinsically engaging – something your people want more of.

In situations where threat is felt to be ongoing, people typically experience burnout. This emotional exhaustion is a result of chronic over-stimulation of the fear centres of the brain. Physiologically, high levels of adrenalin and cortisol can only be supported for so long before they start to damage the nervous system.

Where these sorts of threatening social conditions are widespread, ongoing or both, each individual’s sub-optimal reaction is reinforced by the reactions of the people around them, magnifying the pattern. This looks like ‘learned helplessness’, passivity or protective withdrawal. Sometimes it drives an aggressive pattern where individuals seek authoritarian control over whatever small part of their world they feel they can have an effect on.


Practical steps that can be taken during COVID-19

If you’re an organisation transitioning working roles or letting go of staff due to the impacts of COVID closures, ensure you are both transparent and compassionate in your communications.

Be clear and straight forward about how government policy impacts your workers, keep them informed of the decisions being made and communicate the rationale behind them, particularly when they impact others.

When communicating changes, respect for the people affected is crucial. While your decisions have economic drivers, there are very real human costs associated with the outcomes.

Relationships and connection are of heightened importance now. Take care in implementing processes to foster positive relationships between people – whether by virtual catch ups, a mentor support system, or regular virtual check ins by managers with their staff to see how they are coping and adjusting.

Tension will also be high, and any perceived difference may trigger as a threat. Leaders will need to be conscious of how relationships are managed between staff who may be actively competing for scarce resources or roles, if facing redundancies.


None of these strategies ameliorates the situation

It is the responsibility of the leaders of the transformation to monitor if what is going on in their organisation is supporting or undermining people’s performance. If performance is being undermined, it is their responsibility to raise those instances to awareness of their peers in the leadership team, to mobilise and support staff to break the prevailing patterns and to experiment with alternative approaches.

Navigating the changes ahead won’t be easy, and for many this may be the hardest professional challenge they’ve had to face given the stakes have never been so high. But careful attention to how decisions are made and communicated is critical to staff safety and wellbeing in the current climate. And that’s never been more important. 

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.