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Leading in Times of Anxiety and Uncertainty

To support their teams through uncertain times, effective leaders reflect first on their internal world and personal awareness. By understanding themselves better, leaders can apply that knowledge to navigate the external world and offer relevant guidance and aid to others.

Facing uncertainty, we may find that our bodies feel tense and we cannot channel our energies on forward movement. We are frozen by the fear and anxiety surrounding us. On an instinctual level, our brains first stop and assess our environment for safety and danger. This reaction is perfectly normal as our nervous system has entered a “threat state”. To read more information about this natural neurological reaction, see the footnote below describing the SCARF model*.

Reacting to threatening experiences, our bodies release cortisol, the fear hormone, with dire long-term consequences for our health. Positive experiences trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone that contributes to confidence and higher performance.

An average of three positive experiences dilutes one comparable negative experience because cortisol is three times more powerful than dopamine. To reduce your stress level, engage in as many positive experiences as you can to boost your beneficial dopamine levels.

As a leader, proactively taking steps to support your people  creates more positive experiences in this time of high anxiety and uncertainty.

  1. Start with yourself and be aware of how you are feeling about the current situation.
  2. Practice self-regulation in moments of high stress.
  3. Reach out to others. Ask people how they are feeling. Actively listen. Connect. Everyone needs more support and social connection at this time.
  4. Set up a meeting with your team with no agenda. Gather your team and ask each person to share what is happening if they would like.
  5. Ask your team regularly about how you can best support them as circumstances change rapidly.
  6. Share these 10 steps with your group.

Below is a checklist of 10 immediate actions to take yourself, and share with your team to increase their positive experiences and decrease their stress.

  1. Be mindful – Recognize and acknowledge your thoughts and emotions at this moment. Be aware of tension in your body. Name your feelings. To improve your self-awareness, you can ask yourself:
    1. What am I experiencing right now? How am I experiencing that in my body? Be specific about naming thoughts and feelings. My mind fills with fearful thoughts. My throat feels tight. Pressure weighs on my chest. My jaw clenches when I’m anxious.
      • Name your emotions specifically – e.g fear, sadness, guilt, anger or frustration?
      • Why am I experiencing these emotions? Validate what you’re feeling as useful information to move forward.
    2. What are some of the reasons I feel this way? What can I control? What is out of my hands?
    3. How do these emotions impact me and my ability to perform or move forward?
    4. What small step can I take to improve the situation?
  2. Take action today on what you can control: Prioritize action on what moves you forward rather than focus on all the things you cannot control.
  3. Connect with others: We are social beings; our community helps us feel safe. Reach out to people by phone or video, connect with friends and family, following social distance guidelines.
  4. Engage in what refuels you; What can you do to refuel or recharge your energy? Practicing mindfulness or meditation can be very helpful in these uncertain times.
  5. Move your body: Exercise to relax, and stimulate your brain’s production of endorphins, the chemicals that act as the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.
  6. Experience nature:  Evidence shows that spending time in nature creates many measurable beneficial changes in the body and the mind.
  7. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling. Talking out loud about your fears and anxieties can reduce your stress level. If you’re feeling really stuck, talk to a mental health professional or coach.
  8. Create a routine for your day: Since many of us are working from home, without the predictable structure of the work environment, it is normal to feel a bit lost, or out of sorts. Build a daily structure that supports you and helps you deal with the uncertainty still to come.
  9. Pause: If possible, slow down on making major decisions. Be aware that emotions precede actions and you may not make the best decision when you’re feeling stressed. Fear and anxiety can have a deep subconscious effect on our ultimate decision in a given situation. A negative emotional reaction may cause a disregard of facts or data that that logically support a certain decision. Pause and revisit the decision when your mind and body are in a less threatened state.
  10. Help others: Reach out to people who may need support. There is scientific evidence that when we focus on doing something good for others, the act of kindness causes our brain to release dopamine, increasing own our happiness and calming our minds. If you can activate yourself or your community without putting yourself at risk, do so.

If you need support putting these steps into action, please contact us for a free 15-minute consultation. We have tools and methodologies to support you through these uncertain times.

Additional Information

*David Rock, NeuroLeadership Institute, refers to the SCARF Model*that describes the five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

  • Status defines relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns our ability to predict the future
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over event
  • Relatedness describes our sense of safety with others. Friend or foe?
  • Fairness depicts the perception of open-minded exchanges between people.

These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. A perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks that respond to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.

The model enables people to more easily remember, recognize, and potentially modify the core social domains that drive human behavior. In normal circumstances, the brain assesses our environment for safety and danger. However, in the current state of the world with the Covid19 crisis, we are experiencing additional stress:

  • We cannot personally control the global reaction to the Coronavirus
  • There is uncertainty about how and when the situation will resolve
  • In the immediate future, our autonomy as an individual has been severely impacted.

In addition to this our need for personal connection to others and relationships are being impacted. We respond neurologically to these challenging situations as if there has been a threat to our life. Frightening experiences produce more stress hormones, like cortisol over time. If we can’t reduce our stress levels, the following can occur:

  • Decreased cognitive performance
  • Decreased oxygen available for critical brain functions
  • Tendency to overgeneralize
  • Defensive responses
  • Exaggerated reactions to small stressors
  • Heightened agitation
  • The tendency to dwell on previous negative experiences
  • Struggle to get along with others

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