It’s hard to imagine a more chaotic time than our present moment. As leaders, we’re adapting to change at breakneck speed and asking the same of our teams. I study the brain science of success—specifically, how humans move through change—and one of the most important things we can do as leaders in moments of crisis is to remain calm.
This might seem obvious, but there’s a scientific reason: humans have mirror neurons, which means that we pick up the emotions of others and amplify them within ourselves. This can lead to panic, which is paralyzing for a workplace. It’s so important for leaders to maintain a steady presence and exude calm for their teams. Here are a few ways to achieve calm in the face of crisis.
- Accept Resistance to Change
In my studies on the brain science of change, it’s clear that humans are wired to resist it. We see change as a potential danger, and it feels especially threatening when we’re confronted with changes that we did not choose or seek out. Because this global pandemic isn’t something any of us wanted, it’s only natural that people will initially be resistant to the changes it demands of us.
When facing change, humans look for information that will give them a sense of control over the situation. It’s critical for people in positions of leadership to arm team members with as much knowledge as possible to put them at ease.
We’re all learning new ways of working as we adapt to enormous changes, and it’s going to be rough at first. But it will get easier as our brains form habits over time, especially if leaders can model the behavior they’d like to see from their teams. It’s also important to remember that it takes 40 to 50 repetitions of a new habit for that habit to become automatic. Humans are very good at observational learning. If you want your team to be calm in crisis, show them what that looks like.
The bottom line is: change flusters us. Leaders who grant their teams patience and grace will see it pay off.
- Embrace New Ways of Working
I understand the resistance to video conferencing and other technologies. For a long time, I was resistant to them myself! But right now, we’re all being forced to work through those hesitations and step out of our comfort zones. The good news is, when we embrace new ways of working, they’ll help keep us calm. Because with the right tools in place, your team can run smoothly even when the state of the world necessitates remote work.
I believe we’re going to find ourselves using these tools well into the future, and that as a result we’ll create much more flexible work options. We’ll see a lot of benefits from this down the road: people naturally love connecting with each other, and seeing each other online still gives our brains a lot of the data they need. We can read emotions, make eye contact, and have a sense of connection that makes us calmer in stressful situations.
- Practice Self-Care
To inspire calm among your team members, you need to be calm yourself. But how will you possibly manage that when everything feels so overwhelming? It’s time for self-care.
First, limit your screen time. Remember that social media is designed to continually tee up the next click-bait, then the next. It’s easy to keep reading, and as you do so, the amygdala part of your brain will activate and fire off fight/flight/freeze responses. Here’s my solution: pick one or two news sources that you really trust, and give yourself two check-ins of just those sources each day. Set a timer during each check-in and give yourself fifteen minutes to catch up on the news. When the timer goes off, move on.
Aside from limiting news exposure, try some mindfulness practices to help you achieve ongoing calm. My go-tos are meditation, yoga, and going on walks, but do what helps you feel more centered and relaxed. Plus, anything you can do to lighten things up: finding something to make you laugh, playing with a pet, even playing board games.
Though this time is incredibly difficult, seek the silver lining: we’ve been presented with an opportunity to slow the pace. So, spend time with people you care about, maybe invest in some learning, and engage in the self-care you need to be a calming presence in your leadership role.
In the absence of information, the human brain will fill in the worst-case scenario. Because we’re wired to survive, our brains convince us that if we think of all the bad things that can possibly happen to us, we’ll increase our chances of survival. But the best leaders aren’t catastrophizing—they’re being intentional and motivated about crafting a narrative, and acting as steady streams of calm confidence for their teams.
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