Leading in Uncertain Times – Helena Boschi

We have entered an age of extreme uncertainty. No one knows what is around the corner, how the virus will continue to spread, how long this situation will last, whether there will be further lockdowns or how we will be able to protect ourselves against the immediate and longer-term future.

All of this is playing havoc with the brain.

The human brain hates anything it cannot predict. Its key role is to keep us alive and in order to do this, it must scan the environment and make rapid determinations as to what may be safe or dangerous. When it is unable to do this it starts to feel anxious. A recent study at UCL (University College, London University) has highlighted that as uncertainty levels rise, so too do our stress levels. Anticipating an unknown future produces more of the stress hormone cortisol than looking back at something bad that actually did happen.

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Why is stress so bad for us?

Stress is a word that is bandied about freely. It is worn like a badge of honour by some and sadly still shunned by others. Companies are increasingly getting on the ‘health and wellbeing’ bandwagon to showcase what they are doing to help their people. But is it all working?

With home and work boundaries now blurring and the working day lengthening to incorporate different time zones or varying customer demands, we are on the verge of a secondary epidemic of mental illness. Physical separation has meant emotional disconnection, exacerbated by a digital world that is now exhausting and wearing thin. The recently introduced hybrid model will highlight unforeseen tensions as groups start to come together again.

Amongst the initiatives currently being introduced into companies, many are quick fixes, albeit well-intentioned, built on the assumptions that people need something practical now and a few simple strategies will sort out the problem. And while there is no doubt that many of us can adapt to better habits, there is still a great deal that is not fully understood about what stress actually does to us.

Stress is not something that we suffer and then recover from easily. Its effects are profound and long-lasting, and we are forever altered in some way by its presence. Once we have become sensitised to feeling stress we suffer all the more the next time it hits.

A secondary series of lockdowns will be therefore more punitive than the first. Alterations in the brain arising from the first wave will mean that the brain is even less well equipped to handle a second round of restrictions.

Any stress activates our body’s fight-or-flight response. Even an imagined threat prepares our system as if there were a real and present danger to our life. If we constantly switch on this response we release biochemicals that, over time, will poison us and make us more susceptible to physical illnesses such as cancer, inflammation, digestive disorders, heart disease, and asthma. Our brain cells needed for memory are also killed off, putting us at increased risk of cognitive degeneration and dementia.

The good news is that resilience is often forged from hardship and we can strengthen our systems if we understand the psychological and biological mechanisms behind human behaviour. But we also need to become accustomed to not feeling in control. This means shortening our horizons to deal largely with the present, making fast adjustments as things change around us, and trying to do all we can to help each other.

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What can we do to help ourselves and others?

Focus on the level of the individual

One of the first and most valuable things that we can do is to recognise early warning signs of stress and anxiety. These can range from cognitive (such as how we are thinking and remembering) to emotional (such as mood swings or irritability) physical (such as frequent colds, digestive issues or a racing heartbeat) and behavioural (such as aches and pains, sleep problems or nervous habits).

As we are now being allowed glimpses into each other’s home life, we are seeing the person behind the professional. Now is the time to focus at the level of the individual and less on organisation-wide statements and ‘one-size-fits-all’ announcements. Everyone is reacting to this situation differently and we need to listen – really listen, without having to jump in with answers – to how people are feeling. And we should not assume that all is well because we are not hearing otherwise. A kind voice will help reduce feelings of anxiety.

Creating a sense of calm and psychological safety should be the priority. Whilst there are no clear answers at the moment, any information, however minimal, will go a long way towards reducing levels of uncertainty and anxiety.

Redesign the digital day

We cannot transpose the office day into a digital equivalent. Office life represents greater structure where there are a start and an end to our working day. Taking work home is not the same as ‘working from home’.

In the digital world, we are asking the brain to do something different from what it would do in the office. The brain can’t and won’t cope with an expectation of day-long sustained and focused attention. Our neural resources are now being stretched to their limit by endless screen time, and people are increasingly reporting symptoms of digital fatigue.

Virtual meetings should be scheduled every other hour, with proper breaks in between to give the brain a much-needed reboot. Getting outside as much as possible is also beneficial 3 to both our brain and body, and this should be built into the middle of the day, especially as the days are getting darker, earlier.

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Re-energise your people

We all suffer, to some degree, from natural inertia. The brain is still designed to conserve energy, and this would have fulfilled an important role in the past when we didn’t know when and where the next meal was coming from. We, therefore, need a good reason to expend additional effort in order to try something new.

Once we have embarked upon an alternative path, maintaining motivation requires regular activation of the brain’s reward network. If we don’t pay conscious attention to this we slip back into old habits and familiar routines.

Small wins that we can look forward to are the fuel we need to keep going, and these small wins need to be visible, publicly acknowledged, and praised so as to inspire others in the team to do the same.

Respond to people openly and honestly

Our physical separation from colleagues has resulted in an emotional disconnection. We now need to find ways to compensate for the absence of the casual micro-interactions we often take for granted in the office environment.

Because we are all trying to make the best of a situation we have been forced to deal with, we can now find ways to connect as learners in adversity. Trust is built on authenticity and vulnerability, and experimenting in the digital world has had a humanising and levelling effect on people at every level. Sharing failures, as well as our successes, will help create connections at a deeper level and build higher levels of tolerance and understanding.

Review what you do with your people

During this period we should review practices underpinning decision-making, communication, collaboration, and job performance. Simple changes can yield dramatic results. Finding moments to engage in non-virtual activities will also make a significant difference: a handwritten note, a small gift in the post, a voucher, or even just a telephone call are all effective ways to show people that you are thinking of them.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us the opportunity to discover aspects of our own character and learn about others in a way that has not been afforded us in the past. We all have the chance to learn new skills, shape different thinking and extend kindness and compassion to others.

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The world may feel uncertain for some time to come but there is one certainty we can be sure of, which is that the Covid-19 pandemic will come to an end.  Although nobody knows exactly when that will be, we should all look forward to when we will be able to look back at  this time and be proud of what we have achieved together.


If you’re eager to unpack more of Helena Boschi’s insights, her new book, Why We Do What We Do, is now available.

Why We Do What We Do offers a guide to the neuroscience of how our brain works. The book combines scientific research with concrete examples and illustrative stories.  It is filled with practical tools and suggestions that can lead to a happy, healthy and more productive life, highlighting how we behave, communicate, feel, remember, pay attention, create, influence, lead others and make decisions. Helena Boschi – a noted speaker in the field of applied neuroscience – reveals how we can change just a few habits that can make a significant difference to the way we feel and behave with the people around us.



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