As Covid’s dizzying spin starts to slow, leaders are steeling themselves for the long road to recovery. An essential early step will be effectively addressing the anxieties of millions of workers who are worried about the future of their work and their health. Given the pain of this moment, there are plenty of “tips,” urging leaders to handle the journey’s challenges with resilience, authenticity, and connection. While these things have tremendous value in stabilizing human behavior at an emotionally volatile time, they are not enough.
If leaders want to use this moment to do more than return worried, distracted employees to old jobs they once knew, there is much to be learned from the scientific study of how the brain responds to uncertainty. Surprisingly, it’s often counterintuitive strategies that are most effective. To beat anxiety, the scientific evidence tells us to pay attention to what we instinctively want to do and then actively consider its opposite.
Take, for example, a combat veteran who develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a devastating nighttime raid. For years, the soldier’s natural coping strategy has been to avoid not just explicit mention of the trauma but anything even slightly related. While it makes intuitive sense to avoid even loose associations to such painful events, the most effective treatments for PTSD demand the opposite: repeated, detailed discussions of the trauma combined with robust engagement in all facets that were previously avoided in order to cope.
The important point here is not the clinical diagnosis, but rather the human brain’s reliable reaction to the uncertain. Anxiety, both common and clinical, often leads us to reflexively make decisions that are not ultimately in our best interest. In my work with companies dealing with change management, I often observe new leaders who become easily distracted by the allure of day-to-day “crises.” Paradoxically, this peremptory action often leads to less success than if leaders had done what feels like the wrong thing to do, but isn’t: sit back, listen, wait.
Many leaders are thinking broadly about how to meet the return-to-work challenge. Unlike other crises, such as 9/11 or the Great Recession in 2008, Covid’s crucible is the fight against an invisible and insidious enemy, a pathogen that promises to wax and wane for an indeterminate time. Furthermore, its unsettlingly long incubation period may render even the most rigorous workplace prevention efforts ineffective. All this makes all of us anxious. It can be immensely helpful to know that the anxious brain is reasonably well understood. We know, for example, that when anxious we are readily distracted by the wrong things, which means we can prepare for them and try to overcome our instincts.
Here are three paradoxical strategies — rooted in neuroscience and psychology — designed to help leaders manage current anxieties as they relate to performance management, communication, and leadership effectiveness.
Performance management: The reflex is to exert greater control, but the solution is more flexibility.
In a crisis, it’s natural to thrash about seeking to grab the one thing we lack: control. But the core madness of anxiety is that it tricks us into using its very sensations — the racing of our hearts, the frenzy of our thoughts and the tightness in our throats — as evidence that we should make decisions that ultimately lead to more problems.
For example, one firm’s leaders were panicked about a protracted office absence and lagging productivity. They thought they could create control by asking employees to sign a contract promising to avoid all distractions while working from home. While leadership’s anxious impulse around employee productivity is understandable, it led them astray. Not only is this request absurd for the millions of people who continue to have “coworkers” in school and in diapers, but it disrupts team cohesion by implicitly communicating that employees’ cannot be trusted to manage the complexities of their own jobs and lives.
The concern about performance is warranted, but leaders should pay keen attention to any reflex that tightens the grip — and actively consider its opposite. Instead of over-investing in process and micromanaging schedules, leaders would be wise to consider a strategy that is far more flexible than feels comfortable for them.
Communication: Overcommunication is encouraged, but less is more.
There are plenty of well-intentioned calls for more transparency from leaders. Many leadership teams determined to assuage the fear of this moment are providing employees with as much information as they can through Covid microsites, updates, emails, policy announcements and virtual town halls. But, according to neuroscientific evidence, transparency — complete access to information — doesn’t necessarily create a sense of security. Right now, the average American’s workday is 40% longer than it was prior to the pandemic. Weary brains don’t want or need more stuff to think about. In a recent strategic planning session with one of our clients, a senior leader remarked she was so fatigued by a deluge of Covid communications, she set her email filters to automatically delete anything with Covid in the subject line.
If the goal is to lead employees through a fog of information, then the solution is not generous information sharing but radical clarity. Radical clarity is distinct from transparency because it requires defining what information will be tended to and what information will not; it means delineating what the priorities are and also what they are not. By definition, a crisis is something that exceeds our capabilities to cope. As we return to work, there will be a misguided impulse to dedicate our attention to far more issues than there are resources to give. Because impulses are difficult things to control, leadership would be aided by a communications hierarchy that focuses on strategic priorities at the exclusion of all others. While there is no one-size-fits-all communications strategy and, subsequently, the precise number of issues on the hierarchy will vary, a useful heuristic is to define five top priorities.
Here, it is important to understand that the anxious brain is a master of reactivity and not productivity — superficially tending to many things, but substantively resolving none. Therefore, leaders should anticipate that executing such a focused plan will create considerable discomfort—and that is precisely the point. It is through the heat of discomfort that our true values are clarified and behavior is meaningfully changed. Everyone understands that change is painful, but most fail to understand the full reason why. Change’s pain comes not just from the energy-intensive motivation it demands, but also from the worthy things and good ideas we must willingly, albeit begrudgingly, leave behind.
Effective leadership: To be tough, you must first get soft.
Ironically, the precursor to mental toughness is emotional vulnerability. Thoughtful sharing of emotional content in safe spaces indeed leads to profound shifts in group cohesion, innovation, and performance — mostly because it offers access to unexplored ideas. However, offering uncommonly emotional content to our coworkers is a risk the brain does not take lightly. Therefore, improving team cohesion depends on the courage of leadership to go first. The highest-ranking person at the table should begin, offering insight into their own professional struggles and subsequent emotional experiences. In doing so, they enrich team connection and, subsequently, agility.
Of all of the lessons Covid-19 will teach us, perhaps newfound appreciation of our stunning (biological, economic, social, and intellectual) interconnectivity will be the most powerful. We find ourselves in quarantine longing, above all else, for each other. In a recent conversation I had with an industry executive, he said, “One of the things I never imagined wanting to say to my colleagues is ‘I miss you.’” From a neuropsychologist’s perspective, this is not a surprise. The most innovative research suggests our competitive advantage as a species is the brain’s exceptional capacity for socialization. From the words we speak to the communities we build, our success is entirely dependent on our ability to socialize. Whether we return to our offices with trepidation or remain marooned in our lonely homes, the creation of deep emotional connections with our teams is essential. Sharing parts of ourselves and our vulnerabilities during this time isn’t just the feel-good thing to do; it’s the pragmatic thing to do.
Leaders will be steadied when they anticipate their own natural clumsiness associated with initial attempts for deeper connection and greater self-exposure. But this awkwardness should be embraced. At this moment, when there is hardly the faintest line between the personal and professional, the day-to-day intricacies of team members’ lives have become tactical issues that affect the very substance of the work we do. It is time to use appropriate methods for communicating about issues previously deemed too messy for work. In what is arguably the most important lesson of anxiety research, we learn it is only in approaching what we have historically avoided that we’re able to find the very resilience we’ve been seeking.
The inevitable discomfort that accompanies change should not be interpreted as a sign we are on the wrong path — just the opposite. This anxiety is a sign of productive growth, telling us we are on the right path to making substantive changes. To squander this moment’s rich opportunity for transformative change is as bad for business as it is for the brain.