Managing the Impact of Threat Arousal During the Crisis

May 11, 2020

By Peter Hutchinson

The pandemic has required leaders to react in the right way to protect their organisations and maximise the chances of organisational survival.  Pressure and change have come in a form and at a pace rarely imagined and most have had to act with great speed and agility.

In our white paper Navigating the Leadership Landscape Out of the Crisis, we discussed leaders’ need for a thinking framework to help them lead more effectively in a challenging climate. The better leaders think right now, the better the outcomes will be for all their stakeholders.

At the heart of the thinking framework we outlined was the need for leaders to find an environment for calm reflective thought – where they can slow down and consider the questions and lessons they face in the crisis. This is not easy in the maelstrom of threatening situations that need to be dealt with. In this article we explore how the presence of those threats can degrade leaders’ thinking processes and how they and their teams can recover from this.

The impact of threat on our thinking

The nature of the pandemic has brought a type of uncertainty rarely experienced. No one knows what course the pandemic will take, how long it and the consequential Governmental measures will last or quite what life will look life afterwards. Many of the assumptions that we have normally relied on for our everyday decision-making may no longer be valid.

High uncertainty appears to us as a threat and our bodies and mind react in a way that was originally evolved for dealing with a chance encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger in the bush. This may not always be the optimum response in today’s complex interconnected world!

Over the past 15 years neuroscience has shown with great clarity that when people experience fear and threat this switches on their survival mode where inherent fight, flight or freeze bodily responses kick in as the sympathetic nervous system takes control. Physically, the results are an increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, adrenalin and cortisol levels. Mentally we become very focussed on the immediate threat and so we think more narrowly with less regard to longer-term consequences including relationships. Crucially, we also become less creative.

In discussion with my Merryck & Co. colleague Dr. Martina Muttke, whose book How Neuroscience Fulfils a Leader’s Unmet Need publishes in the summer, explained that threat states are also exhausting and hence the physical response of people to unpredictability is difficult to sustain over long periods.

This uncertainty surrounding the crisis means that our past experiences, assumptions and knowledge to help navigate it are not always relevant. Finding fresh ways to cope with the crisis are more likely to be found when people feel less threatened. Our goal, therefore, is to help people recover rapidly into the parasympathetic nervous system which they encounter when relaxed and satisfied as this is a source for forming clearer decisions, strengthening relationships and finding, innovative, considered and collaborative ways forward.

Leaders are not only having to deal with their own threat states, but also must consider those of the people they lead. A key role for leaders just now is to reduce the perceived threats that their people are experiencing whilst remaining transparent and trustworthy.

Reducing uncertainty threat states – key questions to ask yourself

To reduce threat states and help themselves and their people recover resourcefulness leaders are exploring key questions in their thinking frameworks that include:

  • How well am I managing my own threat arousal levels, so that I interact with my people in a positive and emotionally controlled way?
  • How can we increase the level of communication including being prepared to repeat ourselves often?
  • How can our executive team be more visible and available to reassure people?
  • Even if some decisions have not yet been made, what can we tell people that is certain?
  • How might we break down complex response programmes down into smaller, simpler and more predictable chunks?

Connectedness in the virtual organisation to lessen threat

Another key driver of threat arousal is a reduced sense of connectedness and we are finding that many leaders we at Merryck are working with are also exploring how to recover a strong sense of connectedness and trust in today’s virtual working conditions.

Leaders are recognising the importance of regular communications to reassure the organisation and be visible in the face of the crisis.  There is a keenness to find the right language and approach that connects with each of the people at their level – lessening their sense of threat and encouraging greater resilience over time.

As Martina points out, an understanding of the “Stockdale Paradox” for leadership in the current uncertainty is also critical.  It is crucial that leaders be honest and not whitewash over the reality, but at the same time also provide a reasonable base of hope for their people. Stockdale argues not for blind optimism or groundless recovery timetables but for demonstrating faith that we will emerge in a good place in the end. Hope comes from rational reporting of facts, (such as what the organisation has done and what it is planning,) and drawing on positive lessons learned to date.

Leaders are also considering:

  • How can we stay really connected to our teams during the crisis?
  • How can we create more trust and social safety? Are meaningful off-the-job social interactions possible? Virtual breakfast or lunch?
  • What could we be more open about?
  • How can we involve people more in the planning and decision-making processes affecting their areas?
  • What extra could the leadership team be doing to check in regularly with team members feeling vulnerable in the current situation?

From the leaders we have worked with, this reflection has led to many positive approaches. Some examples include: regular short videos demonstrating clarity and straight talking;  the creation of virtual social team gatherings; offering mindfulness apps and stress-management online training to staff; identifying the small teams or individuals working well in the crisis and making more of them; delving deeper in the organisation’s hierarchy to explore possibilities and solutions; creating opportunities to reflect; and building more breaks into the day.

Thinking slower and more deeply

If we can overcome our threat arousal we can slow down just a little and apply a deeper and more conscious thinking approach to what faces us. It can help to have an independent thinking partner to support this.

Slowing down to reflect is unleashing many leaders to find more strategic and effective possibilities for the way ahead. As Margaret Heffernan said in her article Running Thin? Slow Down – ‘Our bodies are quarantined, but our spirits are not.’

History tells us that those who demonstrate objectivity, empathy, calmness and courage in a crisis are followed and remembered.

About Merryck & Co.

Merryck & Co. has been helping organisations for 20 years accelerate the impact of leadership. Merryck & Co. is a global firm of experienced CEOs and top business leaders who bring an operator’s lens to executive development. Their services focus on succession, senior leadership development, strategic enterprise transformation, and emerging leadership development. The firm’s clients include some of the most successful executives within the highest-performing companies in the world, boards of directors, and select teams of individuals. For more information please visit:

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