The coronavirus crisis is a marathon, not the sprint we might have hoped for. Many businesses are preparing for a second, winter wave of COVID-19 and want to establish new ways of working that promote greater resilience and flexibility. As humans, our brains don’t like sudden change, but they’re remarkably good at adapting — as long as they’re given support.
Applying an understanding of neuroscience can help leaders to provide that support.
Cutting-edge research demonstrates that around 40% of our daily behaviors are habitual, which means we tip into habitual behavior without full conscious awareness, an automatic pilot of sorts. When under stress, the brain tries to revert to its known habits, whether they’re good or bad for us. It’s our body’s way of conserving energy in a crisis.
The trouble is that what we need now is flexibility as we work under new conditions, seek to build relationships in a virtual world, wait for clearance to return to city offices (while remaining on standby to work from home again), continue to manage children’s homeschooling … and the list goes on.
What can leaders do to support the building of new habits that enable flexibility of mind — and thereby support performance — no matter the circumstances? Taking a brain-friendly approach to adaptive change works best; it builds habits that are future-proof. And better habits begin in the emotional brain.
The brain works from the bottom up. The emotional part of the brain comes online long before the rational thinking part of the brain does (three times more quickly, in fact). Our emotional minds run the show in terms of where and how we focus our attention, which means the first thing leaders must do to enable a high-performance mind is to settle the emotional part of the brain.
The following case study, about a leader named Sarah, highlights how teams can reach a settled state when leaders employ four basic principles.
1. Make a Connection
Feeling safe, seen, heard and welcome is the best way to settle the emotional brain. Our ancient emotional brain knows when we are safe. Creating connection provides the nervous system what it needs to remain calm: a sense of belonging.
As the crisis necessitated working from home, Sarah called upon Amber, a very empathic member of her team. She put Amber in charge of finding out what each team member’s specific needs were as well as what might help them feel supported.
Just knowing that Sarah cared about each person’s situation (such as the challenge of working from home with young children, being alone in lockdown or needing more talking time than other team members) created a positive emotional bond.
2. Cultivate Compassion
Our brain judges others before we’re consciously aware of it. Compassion calls upon us to go beyond this automatic reflex.
To illustrate this point, Sarah made an unusual request: She asked her team to think about each co-worker and then write down — in private — what immediately came to mind: the good, bad or ugly. This activity brought the concept of snap judgments into the team’s conscious awareness.
She then asked team members to co-coach each other, in pairs, on a positive change they each wanted to make in any area of their lives, not necessarily work. They rotated pairs every two weeks. This way, team members built up understanding and compassion for one other at a more intimate level. This process built trust even from a virtual distance, and it soothed the team’s emotional minds.
3. Promote Curiosity
The prefrontal cortex is the rational powerhouse of the brain. It loves to engage in creating solutions. Once the emotional brain feels settled, the cortex can engage.
Sarah, now more than ever, needed new ideas for virtual business development and client relationship-building. She wanted to make sure she received the best from all the brains on her team, so she created single-topic “virtual curiosity sessions.” The team focused on one topic and recorded virtual sessions where they discussed, brainstormed and free-associated on a single issue. There was no set outcome for these sessions. Sarah simply provided the space for people to be curious.
Her people loved it, and energy and ideas flowed.
4. Relinquish Control
During these sessions, each person was allowed to fully “surf” idea and thought waves without interruption, comment or criticism. Team members had full control of their thinking and air time. Sarah noticed that different voices were speaking up compared to who normally dominated their in-office meetings. The playing field felt more even as some of the conventional hierarchies fell away. Her team’s confidence increased.
Guided by these brain-friendly principles, Sarah helped herself and her team build the habits of connection, compassion, curiosity and the confidence to take control and express ideas. In doing so, she enabled trust to grow, and her team now feels empowered and flexible in the face of ongoing change and uncertainty.
Her team’s productivity increased, and well-being surged, despite inevitable individual stresses. Sarah continues to do a great job of generating the conditions for healthy brain habits and high-performance minds.
Now, it’s your team’s turn.