Category: Leading through change and challenge
Content type: Insight

Coronavirus, threat and response – are you leading the way?

Coronavirus is sweeping the world, moving fast in some regions, and in a more contained way in others. We’ll share our insight here on understanding and responding to threat, with some practical suggestions on leading in threatening and challenging times.

We’re at the start of what will probably be an extraordinary and – in our lifetime – unprecedented period. Coronavirus is sweeping the world, moving fast in some regions, and in a more contained way in others. As well as the virus being a very real and perceived psychological and biological threat, we’ll experience disruption and change to normal patterns of living.

Clearly this will affect us all in the weeks and months to come – and we’ve already seen a diverse range of responses and behaviours, mostly on an individual level. As businesses contemplate how to manage the threat and potential disruption, we’ll be sharing our expertise as performance psychologists on how to prepare for, navigate through and stay resilient in times of challenge. We’ll share our insight here on understanding and responding to threat, with some practical suggestions on leading in threatening and challenging times.

What’s your plan?

We know that our brains have evolved to tune into threats more than opportunities, so it’s not surprising that Covid-19, with its sudden rise, and slow but seemingly inexorable spread, has triggered a good deal of alarm.  We also know that we handle actual and defined threats better than inconsistent ones – and Covid-19 ticks all the boxes around uncertainty, unfamiliarity and inconsistency. Plus, it’s an invisible foe – which is another key factor in the mix.

With any threat, your readiness plan needs to have two components – a game plan and a psychological plan.  A game plan is a practical plan. It’s the actions you’ll take for different scenarios – and most of our attention has been on the game plan. We’re witnessing businesses getting their game plan in place, with recommendations around limiting travel, remote working, ensuring there’s sufficient stock and resource, developing contingency plans around staffing, cashflow, etc. The situation is fluid and fast moving, so game plans must be constantly evolved and updated in line with the changing situation.

While every organization needs a business game plan to survive these challenges, this must be informed by a psychological game plan to help staff resilience and wellbeing. And we’re typically seeing a bit less consideration and attention given to the psychological game plan.  It’s important that as business leaders we have both an understanding of how people respond to threat, and then how best to lead and support them in the coming weeks and months.

Understanding threat response

There’s plenty of models around threat and response, but we particularly like David Rock’s SCARF framework. Rock says we have some key social psychological needs and when we’re faced with a situation where these aren’t fulfilled – i.e. they’re threatened – we’re likely to respond with pessimism, self-protection and panic. The 5 core needs are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. We’ll vary in which need is most important to us, and how we interpret situations, so we won’t all feel threatened – or respond – in the same way in the same situation.

Awareness of these drivers in ourselves can help us attend to the aspect which may be triggering us into an unhelpful over-reaction, as well as to the needs of our team members and staff. In this current situation, we think there are three drivers in particular that are important.

Certainty or the lack of it is likely to be the most nagging driver for many. There is so much uncertainty around the current situation, and the immediate to medium term implications. As leaders, look to provide as much certainty as possible. What’s important here might include:

  • Predictably timed regular updates on changes to the situation
  • Enough what-if planning to show contingencies are being thought through
  • Availability to respond to concerns and questions

Autonomy is the second key trigger here that might be threatened. In the weeks and months ahead, individuals may experience a restriction in choices and freedom – which some will experience as particularly problematic. Helping people understand the ‘why’ behind any changes to operating norms and highlighting the autonomy that they do have is key (our perception here is often different from reality!). Some practical ideas:

  • Providing secure devices and solutions to allow flexible and mobile working to allow people to function well at a distance
  • Be clear about the principles of key business priorities and self-care, but keep giving individuals responsibility for how they carry them out.

As the situation evolves and/if we end up with increased travel restrictions, remote working and some kind of lock down (as seen in Italy this week), Relatedness may be under threat. If you’re in a business where remote working and use of video technology is not the norm, then ensuring that’s in place, and starting to use/practice with that now will help readiness for this next phase.

As leaders, don’t ignore the psychological element of the current challenge, and be ready with your practical game plan as well as the psychological game plan. Understanding why and how people respond differently to different threats is helpful; and make sure you’re taking action to prepare and support people over the coming weeks and months.


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