April 20, 2020
It all seems like it was years ago. The calm mornings, the deep breaths of fresh air, the din of a happy, productive office. In fact, it’s been just a few short months since the COVID-19 pandemic upended just about every aspect of life: our schedules, our roles as parents, our certainty about the future. Millions of workers are feeling this strain, if not on their physical health and bank accounts, then surely on their mental status and ability to focus on simple things like sending emails or making small talk.
Leaders should view this as a crucial opportunity. What we do now will be remembered for decades to come, so we should get as intentional as possible about building the cultures that will support us for the next 12-18 months, and beyond. And though we may be tempted to lean into the conventional wisdom we’re often given, it turns out science may be an even more reliable source of clarity.
The science of threat
Each of us no doubt responds slightly differently to difficult situations, but one thing that remains relatively constant is the response that happens in our brains. Neuroscience research has shown there are three distinct levels of threat response, which affect us in dramatically different ways. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them Levels 1, 2, and 3.
Neuroscience research has shown there are three distinct levels of threat response, which affect us in dramatically different ways
Level 1 threats are in your broader environment. You’re aware of the threat, but your fight or flight response has yet to kick in, leaving precious cognitive resources intact. Think of this threat as the hurricane that your local weather person says is moving toward your home state.
Level 2 threats are those in your neighborhood. Your brain signals to your body to prepare for a fight or flight response. You may become hyper-alert and now also feel a bit alarmed. This significantly impacts the resources that you need in your brain for logical thinking. This is when the hurricane makes landfall close by.
Finally, Level 3 threats happen when you feel like a danger is right upon you. You experience intense panic. Your body actively recruits every resource to fight or flee. Minimal complex thought takes place in the brain. This is the hurricane storming through your town.
Before the pandemic, few of us saw our threat levels rise above Level 1. We went about our day, maybe encountered a bit of discomfort with a colleague or a project at work, but generally stayed calm and focused. These days, many employees are struggling to de-escalate to Level 1. A survey we recently ran of over 200 leaders found that more than 50% of respondents said their front line managers were now consistently at Level 2 or higher.
From a motivation and productivity standpoint, this is no good. Levels 2 and 3 are extremely helpful for accomplishing life-or-death physical tasks, like running or jumping. But they produce extraordinary errors in terms of judgement, perception, and understanding others. When we’re in these states, we default to self-protective behaviors. We withdraw from others, stop collaborating, and essentially shut down. Only by reducing threat to Level 1 will leaders and teams see an improvement in their ability to think deeply and connect to one another.
A crucial choice
Based on that understanding, today’s leaders face an existential choice in what kind of leader they wish to become—and by extension, what kind of company they want to build. Do they want to be seen as overly goal-focused, at the expense of their employees’ well-being? Or do they want to be seen as empathetic, and fully committed to being flexible and fair?
Goals don’t get achieved in a vacuum
The former, while perhaps the more familiar of the two options, is by its nature counter-productive. Goals don’t get achieved in a vacuum. They are the result of persistent, collaborative efforts from actual people. And if those people don’t feel their needs are being met, their brains simply won’t deploy the necessary resources to keep them engaged and productive. They may quit and leave, or worse, quit and stay.
On the other hand, if leaders actively tend to their employees’ needs, and show they care about issues like parenting and child care, they will minimize the chances of Level 2 and 3 threats sabotaging their every move. These are the priorities of leadership that will keep people around, as employees feel heard, included, and valued. These are the priorities that keep organizations afloat.
There’s no telling if we’ll ever get “back to normal.” So much is likely to change—both in the external world, and within our own minds—that grasping for a sense of certainty seems basically futile. Instead, let’s return to clarity. Let’s use this once-in-a-century event to remind ourselves of what matters most, and then let’s ruthlessly prioritize bringing it to life.
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