As the threat of coronavirus grows, you may have noticed unusual behaviours from colleagues, friends or family, as they try to make sense of the situation, set new ways of working and respond to government advice. Understanding why this is happening can give us really important insights into how our decision-making may be affected. It can also show us how to make allowances for this in a business environment that is testing our limits.

People whom you thought had great, rational minds might be racing from shop to shop, stuffing their cars with dried pasta and enough packets of paracetamol to look after the whole of their street, or locking themselves and their families in their homes and pledging to make contact only through digital media.

These out of character behaviours are more easily understood when we look at them through a filter of neuroscience. As humans, as soon as we feel under threat, all our natural survival instincts start to work, and our bodies react to the fear we’re registering by producing the stress hormones that generate cortisol, which has just one job to do in our brains. Once we produce enough cortisol, it breaks the neurone connections to the part of our brain that harbours many of our communication and reasoning skills – the pre-frontal cortex. With an impaired connection to this part of our brain, we’re unable to be as thoughtful and analytical in the way we think, and will change our behaviour accordingly, often being less aware of others and making choices that can be unlike our usual, risk-conscious selves.

Our survival instincts are very deep-rooted. Any threat or heightened stress is interpreted by our brains as a threat to survival, triggering the chemical response that changes the way our brains operate so that we can focus on the “fight or flight” response that was so useful to primitive humans.

At times like those we are living through, when stress levels are raised, many of us will find our brain function changes as these chemical reactions take place. Here are a few things we can do to help ourselves think clearly and rationally in a business world that is looking to us to lead:

  • Tune in to our stress levels, noticing if our heart is beating faster. Slow down our breathing and make a conscious effort to stay calm. Lowering the heart rate and breathing deeply and slowly will reduce production of stress hormones.
  • Focus on what we can control and change, and try not to be too anxious about the things that we cannot own and manage ourselves.
  • Take extra time to make decisions, and consider every possible angle before committing to serious decisions involving human capital and finances.
  • De-risk our decision-making by discussing the options with others who have different insights and expertise before reaching a conclusion about the right strategy or action to take.

Leaders are often defined by the way they behave in difficult times. We need to be the leaders who take decisions in this most challenging time as thoughtfully as possible. So let’s take a little bit of time to consider the big issues, and test our ideas and options on trusted colleagues too, to make sure we get it right.

by Catherine May

Catherine May is a Senior Adviser at Stonehaven International. An experienced NED and Committee Chair, and practises as a certified leadership coach, using insights from neuroscience to help her clients perform to the best of their capabilities. She is a qualified NLP Practitioner, member of the International Coaching Federation and a daily student of leadership behaviours.