Fri 28 / 08 / 20
Boost sense of safety to perform in uncertainty
By Riikka Jokelainen of Companies in Balance
The continuing uncertainty we are living through increases a sense of threat, pretty much for all of us to different degrees. While the pandemic is out of your control, there are ways to boost your team’s sense of safety, as well as your own. This will reduce the negative impact on people’s performance and productivity, and on their mental wellbeing.
A perceived threat, such as the uncertainty around your job or of whether your kids will be able to go back to school, throws us into the stress response. A primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, takes over with Fight/ Flight/ Freeze. The executive, more highly evolved functions of the brain go offline, causing literally a reduced ability to think: to understand, synthesise information, make decisions and moderate behaviour.
You can picture what this does to each of our ability to do a good job. I suffered from anxiety at a different time and vividly remember the feeling, like my brain stuck in a fog. At its worst, it makes ‘knowledge-work’ all but impossible. You may spend ages on simple tasks and the quality of insight and rigour in your work diminishes. As does your ability to navigate human interactions.
Have you noticed this in yourself or colleagues recently? The good news is, there are ways to help the amygdala stop freaking out and get the evolved brain back in charge. Here’s a selection for you to pick from.
If your company is really struggling and facing redundancies some of the below examples won’t hit the right note - but the principle still holds and you can find another way to do it.
1. Communicate what is certain.
Now is not the time to keep polishing until you have the perfect plan and comms. We’re running low on certainty so give people as much of it as you can. Share often what you can about the plans of the business. There are question marks, yes, but keep sharing anything you do know. (Real and honest though, not empty promises).
2. Clarity on work conditions.
Such as home/office working, new safety procedures, time out for family reasons. This sounds like the admin bit, but at the moment these boundaries are super-important, one piece of solid foundation. When they are clear, it’s one less thing for your people to worry about. Ideally agree together with employees - playing to points 3 and 4!
3. Autonomy boost.
Have you noticed a tendency to control and check things more than usual? Try instead allowing people more autonomy over their role - within their comfort level, not yours - including making decisions. (Where there isn’t a huge risk). This compensates for the sense of uncertainty. You could ask: ‘What do you need to feel more in control of your work?’
4. Listen with presence.
Listening with real attention makes people feel important and cared for, another way to balance out a lack of safety. Often people start to talk when you just leave a space of silence. I know this is a tough one when a million things you should be doing are running through your head. But you are doing: supporting the person to do well and be well.
5. Connection & belonging.
People may be dropping off that Zoom Pub Quiz by now, so seek other ways to spark human connections and the feeling of being part of something. Both the small like a chat or a shared joke, and the wider stuff, such as celebrating achievements or cross-function learning events in small, interactive groups. Check who is not being included.
6. Physical environment.
What in people’s surroundings makes them feel safe and protected? Small details can have a surprising impact. If you sit with your back to a wall, facing the door, psychologically you feel no-one can ‘attack’ you. Or it might be a cosy lamp, your favourite book on your desk, even a teddy bear (needs must!) Think of it as spatial comfort food.
These are some science-based ways to offset the ill effects of the psychological threat of uncertainty. They help us continue to use our full mental powers through this unsettling time.
CIPD: Neuroscience for Leadership course, 2014
Prof. Marko Kesti: People Analytics - Leading with HR Data course 2020
Agneta Nyholm Winqvist: Feng Shui ja suomalainen koti, WSOY, 2005
Riikka Jokelainen is the founder of Companies in Balance, an HR strategy and development consultancy.
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