Put your own oxygen mask on first

Needless to say, 2020 has brought tremendous change and uncertainty on individuals and organisations. For many, this uncertainty can create significant stress and over time can have a serious impact on deep thinking and productivity.

Leaders have a role to play in ensuring their teams feel supported during periods of ongoing change.

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Research shows our mindset contributes greatly to our ability to reduce the impact of our limbic system response. For leaders that mindset can keep our teams in the adaptive ‘sweet spot’ neither under nor overreacting to an evolving situation. This sweet spot is a belief in eventual success, combined with a deep acceptance of the harsh current reality.


It may feel self-evident to look after our own wellbeing but in times of disruption, the day-to-day things we know we should be doing often fall by the wayside.”

As leaders we need to keep this in mind and help create clarity in our teams to remind them of our shared goals and the journey to get there.

A few habits can make the biggest difference in managing threat levels – taking care of ourselves as leaders, looking after others and delivering on what matters.

Another key aspect is the ‘Knowing – Doing Gap’. It may feel self-evident to look after our own wellbeing but in times of disruption, the day-to-day things we know we should be doing often fall by the wayside. It’s important to intentionally create the space for yourself and your teams and look for opportunities to demonstrate what we know we should do.

What drives you?

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for anything that might harm us. In fact there’s significantly more neural ‘real estate’ in the brain dedicated to detecting threat than rewards. It turns out feeling socially threatened or socially rewarded affects the brain in many of the same ways as physical threat or reward.

I conceptualise this by way of the SCARF model which comes from research into how the brain processes the five different types of social drivers that impact how individuals respond to threat and reward - status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Everyone has a different ‘balance’ of each of the SCARF domains, some are more attuned to detect unfairness while others respond strongly to uncertainty or threats to their relative status in a group.

When we experience too much threat our more automatic, primitive brain systems tend to drive our behaviour. Under conditions of high threat, we may experience a fight-or-flight response and it becomes challenging for our executive functions which are involved in high-level thought processes such as critical thinking and creativity, to work optimally.

Create buffers to manage threat

While we can’t always avoid a threat, there are strategies to help manage when one appears. A buffer can help reduce the level of threat by providing a sense of certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness and as a result improve focus, decision-making and deeper thinking.

  • Establish a sense of certainty: creating and maintaining a daily routine can help provide certainty. For example, setting time aside every day to get outside to exercise or do an enjoyable activity such as playing a musical instrument.

  • Find opportunities to make choices: feelings of being out of control can be overwhelming. However these feelings can be more manageable when we find a way to gain some sense of control over them. By focusing on choices within our control, we experience an increased sense of autonomy. For example, try to focus on three key things you really want to achieve each day rather than overloading yourself with an unrealistic set of tasks.

  • Build relatedness: sharing experiences and goals with others through virtual meetings or events can help establish a sense of community.

By adopting buffering strategies leaders are not only helping themselves but they’re also helping their teams gain focus and clarity.

The Neuroleadership Institute works closely with ANZ to clearly align and deliver a program relevant to particular areas of the bank’s business.

Designed around key insights on how the brain creates long-term memory and habit change, the program includes bite-sized and practical content to recognise people’s differing capacity, particularly during times of stress, and the importance of spacing between learning each habit to allow participants to practice and discuss.

Additional support and resources are also provided to teams to further explore and help embed new habits.


Dr David Rock is Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer NeuroLeadership Institute and recently spoke at ANZ’s Extended Leadership Conference.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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