The Brain Chemistry of the Crisis: What Managers Need to Know to Help Employees Cope and Perform Well

18 May 2020 -

THE BRAIN CHEMISTRY OF THIS CRISIS: WHAT MANAGERS NEED TO KNOW TO HELP EMPLOYEES COPE AND PERFORM WELLTo draw the best from your people at a time of uncertainty, your management style needs to stimulate the right neural reactions. In a CMI Insights exclusive, one of the world’s most respected leadership gurus highlights the five traits of charismatic leaders

Guest blogger Kevin Murray

When employee emotions are dominated by feelings of fear, isolation, uncertainty and self-preservation, it takes special management skills to be able to motivate and energise people to perform well.

Managers need to understand the brain chemistry of a crisis, for their employees currently will have brains that are flooded with unhelpful and negative neurochemicals, all of which have a huge and negative affect on their behaviour.

The answer to combating the dangerous and negative effect of these neurochemicals lies in how you make employees feel... every time you have an exchange with them.

If you can help them to feel especially important and valued, if you can help them to feel part of a team, and if you can give them stretching but meaningful goals and a strong sense of purpose, one that is compelling enough to cut through the cacophony of distracting issues, then performance will skyrocket.

Why? Because you will be helping to change their brain chemistry, and that will help them to behave differently.

One neuroscientist I interviewed for my new book, trying to keep things simple so I could understand, said that our brains operate on two axes: the first axis is about whether we are moving away from danger or toward reward; the second axis is about feeling worthy or unworthy.

In all of these different quadrants (see the grid), different neurochemicals will be at work, influencing our moods and our behaviours.

PLOT GRAPH WITH FOUR ARROWS: WORTHY/UNWORTHY, DANGER/REWARD

The worst quadrant to be in is where you feel both in danger and unworthy (quadrant 3). Prisoners in a jail would sit at the extreme end of this quadrant. However, employees who feel their jobs are in peril, or that they face massive change and upheaval, will also sit in this quadrant. It is the worst place to be, and will result in poor performance, bad behaviours and a lack of results.

Employees who do feel worthy, recognised and valued, but who are under threat, will be able to perform well, for a period. This is the case, also, for employees or teams facing a crisis (quadrant 4). They feel good about themselves, confident in their skills, but sustained periods of stress will rob them of energy and fill their bodies with unhelpful neurochemicals. Good performance under stress is only sustainable for a short while.

When employees are incentivised with a big bonus, but are treated badly by their boss, they will become cynical, resistant and are likely to work to rule, even if there is a big pot awaiting them. They will store up their resentment and likely leave as soon as they have pocketed the bonus. These people are in quadrant 2.

Employees who are made to feel valued and worthy, and who are also working to stretching goals, and rewards which they value, will be in the top right-hand quadrant, and will be high performers, capable of sustained high performance. Charismatic leaders will always try to ensure their team members fit in the top right-hand quadrant. They will work hard to make employees feel truly included.

How to induce the right behaviours

Leaders with the right soft skills will help to induce a brain-friendly environment, a factory for the right neurochemicals that encourage positive behaviours. Those managers who behave in the right ways are able to increase the levels of motivation, discretionary effort and performance – all because they are creating an environment in which the team wants to perform well.

Here are five things to focus on. These are what I have identified as the five traits of charismatic leaders – who possess a greater than average ability to encourage and enable employees to perform at their best.

1. Authenticity – which helps the brain and builds trust

With an authentic personality, a leader communicates and lives a strong set of personal values. This makes that leader more predictable and encourages feelings of integrity and fairness. These appeal to our basic survival instinct, because in our primitive brains it is all about having a fair share of food and warmth from the fire. When leaders appear insincere and unpredictable, they set up uncertainty in our brains, which in turn induces the neurochemicals we least want. Most importantly, an authentic manager will engender trust, and encourage trust among members of the team – and trust has a powerful positive effect on our brains.

2. Personal power – which provides people with confidence

Having personal power is all about confidence. When leaders project confidence and help people to feel calm and focused, positive and optimistic, they again have a positive influence on our brain chemicals. That confidence and focus helps to create alignment among members of the team and fosters good relationships. The emotional state of leaders is like a contagion that affects all of those around them, even when leaders are trying their best to hide the negative emotions. Leaders with confidence are easily able to engage with people, fostering good working relationships. Personal power is about a leadership mindset, positivity, energy and hopefulness.

3. Warm leaders make people feel good and perform well

Leaders have a positive affective presence when they are good listeners and encourage their followers to feel that they have a voice in what happens. They are also skilled at making people feel important and worthy, because they are appreciative and praiseful and they encourage a strong sense of self-esteem. All of this enables autonomy and self-direction. They make members of the team feel that they are connected and aligned with others, safe with the team.

Effective leaders are inclusive and strengthen diversity and integrate points of view from different genders, ages and philosophies while always encouraging an environment of respect. By building this emotional capital and the levels of trust and security, they encourage cooperation and collaboration.

4. Drive and purpose provide certainty and direction

Leaders who convey a compelling purpose, and align individual goals to that purpose, give people a strong sense of direction. They provide clarity and hopefulness, and a greater degree of certainty over the future. They also provide clarity about responsibility, what success looks like and exactly what is expected of members of the team. That compelling purpose and those clear goals are hugely positive influences on our brains. A leader’s drive and energy transmit to others and create urgency. A continuous improvement culture enables agility and innovation because it creates a safe place to admit mistakes and correct them, at speed.

5. Persuasive leaders provide clarity and conviction

Persuasive leaders know that words can change your brain chemistry. They take care when choosing their words. Positive language can transform our reality and encourage high levels of motivation. Positive words propel the motivational centres of the brain into action and build resilience. Negative words have precisely the opposite effect. Persuasive leaders think carefully about what to say, how to say it and when to say it to achieve maximum effect.

Finally, managers need to remember that an exclusive focus on numbers shuts down the brain and, at these times of emergency and great need, can be perceived in a negative way.

Too often, managers who lack the skills of charisma will focus only on financial metrics. This is the wrong place to start, and brain science now tells us that doing so can cause people to shut down cognitively, emotionally and perceptually. To get people to open up their minds, you need to discuss the purpose of an activity, and relate it to the goals of the organisation. Once people understand the why, they can better relate to the metrics. They must be focused on helping and serving others.

When charismatic leaders practise these skills they create positive chemical factories in the brains of their followers, and everyone will benefit.

Kevin Murray CMgr CCMI is a business author and speaker with more than 45 years of leadership experience. This is an exclusive extract from his new book Charismatic Leadership: The skills you can learn to motivate high performance in others (published by Kogan Page).

To see more content related to Covid-19 and the challenges it presents modern-day managers, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

Images: Chart supplied by Kevin Murray, Top image supplied by Unsplash