I picked up one chocolate bar. Normally, I would stop there. This time, I kept adding more and more chocolate bars to the shopping basket inside a supermarket. I felt the emotions were controlling me rather than I owned them. I do not remember ever buying so much chocolate for myself. I even purchased five small ladybug-shaped chocolates for my 3 year-old daughter. This was on March 16th 2020, a few days after it was announced in Berlin that all the schools and many businesses would be closed due to the coronavirus.

I felt anxious and overwhelmed to keep up with the increasing stress of cancellations, closures and other news about the coronavirus. Our 3 year-old daughter would stay at home, while my wife and I strive to work from home. At the same time, we needed to stay clean and keep calm. There has been a lot of uncertainty about how this crisis would unfold. It was like a thick darkness over us.

In crisis, we can feel fearful, anxious, uncertain. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, we have the power to choose.” writes Viktor Frank. Our stimulus is the coronavirus pandemic and we have the power to choose. Below are three insights to give us that power.

Stay in threat level 1 or 2: In the webinar titled “Coronavirus: What Science Says Leaders Should Do”, David Rock, CEO of NeuroLeadership Institute, states that there are three levels of threats that we feel in crisis. In level 1, we notice that a threat, in this case coronavirus, is in our broader environment. It makes us alert but not panicked. In level 2, the threat is in our neighbourhood. Our alertness level rises. Also, our alarming system keeps increasing. In threat level 3, the virus is already very close to us and real danger is imminent. So, we panic. If we stay in level 3, it negatively affects our health. We as leaders need to stay at threat level 1 or 2 to be able to make relatively better decisions. We should also strive to keep our employees and teams in threat levels 1 or 2. To do that, we need to communicate proactively and regularly with our employees to keep them informed about what actions we are taking to deal with the pandemic. This way, we can strive to keep our employees as calm as possible in this very challenging situation.

Create certainty, autonomy and relatedness: In the same webinar, David Rock makes the point that we can notice uncertainty, lack of autonomy and lack relatedness in a crisis. Doing so makes us even more anxious. Concerning the coronavirus pandemic, we do not know clearly when we will go back to normal. This creates uncertainty. We cannot control many factors around the pandemic, we do not even have a medicine or vaccine against it. This leads to lack of autonomy. What is more, social distancing can have a negative impact on our relatedness.

David Rock recommends creating certainty, autonomy and relatedness as much as possible in our organisations. For instance, it creates certainty for employees when they know that at least they will work from home in the coming weeks or when a company announces that there will not be any layoffs in the next 6 months. We can provide flexibility to our employees so that they can have autonomy about when, where and how to work from home. For instance, we can allow them to work at night after their kids go to bed. To strengthen relatedness in our teams, we can continue having weekly one-on-ones and encourage regular video meetings. Dr. Jay Van Bavel suggests meeting as a team online a few times a week. This is like a water cooler where employees meet and talk about non-work topics. This can strengthen relationships among team members. “Communicate often on issues that create certainty, autonomy and relatedness rather than uncertainty.” mentions Dr. Jay Van Bavel in the webinar “Coronavirus: What Science Says Leaders Should Do”.

Adapt to three phases: In his online talk titled “How Coronavirus is Transforming Work and What you can do about it”, Sebastian Bailey, President of MindGym, highlights three phases in a crisis. Acute uncertainty is the phase 1, where an emergency consumes organisational energy. Bailey recommends that in our communication, we as leaders need to be honest about the unpredictability in the phase 1 and communicate confidently despite the highly uncertain situation. Phase 2 is the prolonged disruption, where organisational performance might decline and employees might feel exhausted and lost. Leaders should give hope to employees in the phase 2, according to Bailey. “Returning to normal” is phase 3, where we need to repair social fabric. The priorities of leaders in this final phase are to resurface expectations, give time to adjust and build relationships, adds Bailey.

After listening to the webinars where Sebastian Bailey, David Rock and Dr. Jay Van Bavel shared their insights, I realized that my behavior of purchasing a lot of chocolate was mainly based on uncertainty and lack of autonomy. Collaborating with my wife, we used post-it notes to create and implement a weekly schedule for our 3-year old daughter. This has given us a sense of certainty in terms of a schedule. Currently, we have autonomy, as my wife and I each have around 4 hours every day to work and do what we love. Concerning relatedness, we make sure to connect frequently with family, friends and business contacts through online meetings and sessions. At least, we have created a routine to avoid distractions and to a certain extent stay focused in this crisis.

Application:

  • What can you communicate to your team that creates certainty, autonomy and relatedness?
  • What can you do at work and in your personal lives to have a sense of autonomy?
  • How can you increase relatedness at work and in your personal life?