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Emotional Leadership – Supporting Each Other Through Lockdown

SCARFAs leaders during a crisis, it has never been more important to connect emotionally with our people and co-workers. If we cannot help them to understand their own reactions and needs, we cannot help them to navigate through. Although we might not be able to fix everything, we can help ourselves and others to make things a little better.

From my work with leaders over the years, many find making emotional connection difficult. They have drawn a mental (and emotional) line for themselves demarcating what is “appropriate” at work. In this work, I have noticed that understanding the science of emotion can help to sign-post us to something that feels appropriate and supportive.

Some leader find emotional connection comes more easily. Even so, an understanding of the drivers of emotional responses and behaviours is valuable.

The Engine, The Minder and The Computer

Let’s focus on the neuroscience. Put very simply, the human brain has evolved over time to perform three distinct functions;

The Engine - The brain stem looks after all the automatic functions of the body such as heart rate, breathing and blood pressure.

The Minder - The limbic system is the seat of our emotions and memory and manages the “fight/flight/freeze” response. Its job it to keep us safe and it’s often referred to as the “Monkey Brain”.

The Computer – In particular, the neocortex. This is responsible for rational processing such as planning and analysing, as well as growth, learning and creativity.

The primary purpose of our brain is to keep us safe and alive. So any form of perceived threat activates our flight/fight/freeze response. This response is super-fast and suppresses our ability to process, think, problem-solve, learn, create and make decisions. Our challenge is to grow our ability to experience and understand our emotional responses. We can then take control of the Minder/ Monkey and choose our response to be more effective and resilient.

The Neuroscience of Threat

The SCARF model (David Rock) describes the five strongest neurobiological drivers of the threat (and reward) response;

  • Status is about our relative importance compared to others
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict what is going to happen
  • Autonomy involves a sense of being in control over events
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people

Our sensitivity to these drivers will vary person-to-person. Some people have one or more dominant ones, other are more equally sensitive. The Neuroleadership Institute offers a free online questionnaire on their website.

Research into how these drivers operate has found they have a multiplier effect. In other words, an increase in one, can create an increase in others. For example, if I have been removed from leading a project my Status driver goes into threat. I am now unsure of my future with the company (Certaintly), and because I feel I was doing a good job, Fairness is also in threat.

But the drivers also have an off-setting effect. So if say, Status is in high threat, you can create more emotional equilibrium by increasing the reward status of some of the others.

Some "Universal Truths"

Although we know that everyone’s reactions will be different, unique to them, and change over time - there are a few “truths”;

  • Unless you are a machine, you are affected somehow, and
  • As a result, people’s performance may not be up to their usual contribution
  • Just understanding that your emotions are one part of you and not the whole story can help.
  • Naming threats reduces their power – it is really good to talk
  • Putting more “fear” into the system when people are already in “threat” just makes things worse

Let’s now explore how the drivers might be being activated during this global crisis and how we can help people to get to a better emotional place and optimise their brain-resources. Remember, the suggested counter-actions can also be used where a driver is in low threat to off-set those that are in threat.


For most of us Status may not be seriously affected. For others, more so. What might be the impact of being told that you are a non-essential worker? Or that resources are being diverted to other teams whose productivity is being prioritised? Some quite senior people are having to divert their energy from strategy and change programmes to do front-line work usually undertaken by people on much lower grades and pay.

To support Status, keep the context central to your communication; explain the “why”. Ensure you give credit for what is being achieved, praise effort as well as results, focus on the purpose of why you do what you do, give people opportunities to learn new and valued knowledge or skills.

Also, working at home causes issues. There may be two or more adults trying to work with children requiring schooling, supervision and entertainment. Our status as parent and employee come into conflict and we may not be able to do both as well as we would choose.

It is really important to acknowledge this and let people know you are struggling with it too, that you understand. One Director I know sent everyone in the company an email doing exactly this with the simple message “Do the best you can and tell others if you need them to make some allowances”. Keep a sense of humour about the disturbances to your meetings caused by domestic life.


Where to start on this one! We thought we were living in times of accelerated change before the pandemic. No-one could predict that we would find ourselves with so much uncertainty and ambiguity. Our brains really like certainty and really dislike ambiguity.

Here we are with uncertainty and about health, finances, access to essentials, our ways of working, our future prospects, how the world will change forever…… for ourselves and others.

Notice the contrast between those global leaders who have adopted a “transparency” approach to communication versus those who have tried to look in total control and in-the-know. Which engender trust in you? The worst thing to do with uncertainty is to pretend it is not there, or that we somehow have wisdom others don't.  We need open and honest dialogue about the uncertainty-fears and to acknowledge that although we don’t know the answer yet, together we will find them.

Try to create as much certainty as you can by establishing new routines and norms, setting clear short-term goals, make sure people have one or two firm deliverables each week, focus on what you can do. If the purpose of your team is on “pause”, find a new, short-term purpose that feels like it adds value. If you have furloughed staff, establish two-way communication and let them know what’s happening – even if the message is “no change”. In the absence of certainty our brains make things up, and because they are in threat-mode, they rarely make up good stuff.


As members of a society where we have a great deal of freedom, our autonomy has been restricted like never before. We cannot choose where to work, who to work with, to go outside when we please, to shop, socialise, go to school/college/university. Rules are being made without our consent that we must comply with or face consequences. We have no past experience of this to make sense of it and some of what we are being told is ambiguous.

If you are not used to working remotely, the main challenge is to resist the urge to micro-manage and meddle. This not only increases the reaction from the Autonomy driver, but also fuels Status. See my article on Leading Virtually.

Give as much autonomy to your people as they can. Let them make as many decisions and choices as possible. Use a more coaching style, ask “if you had lots of options what would they be?” Emphasise purpose and outcomes over tasks. This is helped by setting clear expectations and a routine of check-ins. Instead of giving feedback allow people to self-feedback or use the feedforward techniques. More about this here.

Doing these simple things will also create offset for the Status and Certainty drivers.


Relatedness is akin to, but not the same as meeting and talking frequently if the quality of interaction is low. Relatedness requires human connection. A lack of Relatedness results in loneliness and isolation.

Introverted personality types are likely to cope better with less interaction than extroverted types. However, isolation can create difficulties for all of us in some way; lower creativity, energy, loss of focus, commitment or collaboration for example.

In addition to putting in place a rhythm of team and one-to-one meetings (always video), consider ways to use some time to make human connection. Avoid the blanket “How is everyone?” to which you will always get the answer “Fine”. Try asking different questions at the beginning of the meetings and taking an answer from each person in turn. For example;

  • What’s one good thing about working from home?
  • What have you discovered about how you work that’s interesting/ helpful?
  • What one thing would make this easier?
  • What have you done this week that made you proud?

Encourage people to buddy-up with a different team member each week to have a virtual lunch, coffee break or after-work drink together. You could also share this article and then discuss one-to-one; “What did you identify with in the article? What resonated with you?” Be prepared to share your own reflections too.


When we believe something to be unfair, it activates the same region of the brain that is linked to disgust. This is why Fairness is such a powerful threat driver.

While people are out of the office, you may need to offer more explanations for why certain decisions have been taken. Be careful not to be seen to be favouring people and if there are new “rules” in place, apply them consistently. Better still, collaborate within the team to co-create them.

Finally, as you notice behaviours that could be related to SCARF perceived threat reactions (in yourself and others), be kind. Don’t ignore it, seek to create understanding and insight through coaching and offer support. Remember, putting more threat into the system will be counter-productive.

Take care, be kind, lead well.


Leading Culture with Intent
Designing and Running a Virtual Workshop

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