Practical Tips from a Neuroscientist About Leadership in the Time of COVID

Emotions are running at what feels like an all-time high right now. As leaders, it is our responsibility to understand the implications of such strong emotions on our team members.

We spoke with Dr. Terry Wu, who looks to neuroscience and psychology to understand how people make decisions and how emotions drive just about everything. His TEDxTalk explores the profound power emotions have over our decision making. We had a chance to ask Dr. Wu some questions specific to leadership during this global pandemic.

Here are some tips from Dr. Terry Wu about how to lead when it feels like everything is at stake and emotions are running sky-high:

Remember that your team is made up of humans, and humans are emotional beings.

Our decisions are directly impacted by our emotions. And as an emotional species that is experiencing a lot of pain, fear, and distress right now, our decisions are likewise being affected. No matter their personality type, we can’t assume that our teams are always going to make rational, logical, well-thought-out decisions. When they do inevitably make irrational decisions, as frustrating as it may be, we must remember that those decisions could be the products of deep stress or undetectable, possibly even unconscious emotions. Right now the world is in a state of unknown unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Emotions are running rampant whether they are visible or not. This means we can’t expect that everybody’s decision making will be as sound as it once was.

How to do it. Keep in mind that the irrational behavior is likely only temporary. Emotions are fluid, and therefore so is our behavior. Dr. Wu suggests waiting to address any irrational decision making at a later time, unless it is absolutely crucial. This will give the underlying emotions time to run their course and help your team members see more clearly when it is time to have a conversation.

Pay attention to the emotions you provoke; they’ll have a direct impact on your team’s memories.

This pandemic has everyone looking to their leaders – those who lead at home, work, in the hospitals, etc. – to help them figure out what to do and how to move forward. It is critical to understand that what we say and do right now will affect the way those we lead remember this time. This is because the emotion center of our brains, the amygdala, is right next to (or in Dr. Wu’s scientific terms, one synapse away from) the memory center, the hippocampus. Because of the proximity, our emotions affect what we do and don’t remember. Think about when you heard the news of Princess Diana dying, for example. You likely remember where you were or what you were doing. That’s because of the emotions associated with the memory.

What to do about it: Do something kind; something different from pre-COVID times so your team can associate the positive emotion garnered from your gesture with the time of this pandemic. The more personalized the better, too. Consider a hand-written note or a phone call to say hello and check-in personally, not related to work. This will influence their future memories of this difficult time.

Give your team a sense of control.

When we feel we are losing control of something, we begin to feel unsafe. This pandemic has pushed the limits of what we can and cannot control, resulting in a lot of fear and anxiety. Dr. Wu used the example of the inordinate toilet paper hoarding we saw when news of the pandemic first hit the U.S. This was a clear example of people grappling with their lack of control and trying to find one thing they actually could control.

How to do it: Create trust with your team by showing up. Day after day, no matter the circumstances, be there for your team. Your proximity, even if it’s virtual, creates familiarity, and familiarity often leads to trust. The message you send when you show up over and over again for your team is that you are there to address their concerns and maybe even help them solve problems. In addition to showing up, give your team choices; this will provide them with a greater sense of control in a world in which they can control very little.

Avoid toxic positivity.

Leaders are taught to empower their team members by telling them they have the power to control their behavior and destiny. But Dr. Wu says this is not only untrue, it can backfire. This is because emotion-driven responses live in our unconscious awareness and we have no access to them. By telling someone they can control their emotions – which, again, are very high for many right now – what we’re really doing is setting them up for failure.

How to do it: Instead of always being optimistic and positive, demonstrate your own vulnerability by having honest conversations with your team. Share what you’re stressed about or afraid of. Let your team know you are one of them and they are not alone. We are influenced much more by people who are like us than those who are unlike us.

Avoid virtual meeting fatigue by keeping meetings short.

When your team goes into a meeting expecting it to be short, they approach the task knowing it will be easy to accomplish. They show up more open-minded and energized. When approaching a 90-minute meeting, on the other hand, the time-frame creates the perception that the meeting will be hard and complicated. This could result in a dislocation between you and your team.

How to do it: Promise short meetings – and stick to your promise. Suggest attendees use the speaker view on Zoom so their eyes don’t dart from one person to the next throughout the whole meeting, which creates mental fatigue. Take it one step further by keeping meetings to the smallest number of people necessary. The fewer faces to look at, the less back-and-forth shifting of attention your team will undergo.

Fear changes our perception of reality. Stress makes us more irrational. Heightened emotions impact our decision making. As leaders, it is our responsibility to accept that heightened fear, stress, and emotions are simply facts of life right now. Leadership is still possible, and it’s up to us to really step into our roles.

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