There’s a lot of uncertainty today. On the one-year anniversary of the attacks on the Capitol, many people are feeling anxious. Law enforcement officers are uncertain if they will face another violent attack and be deployed to respond, yet again. Government workers are uncertain if they’ll have a day uninterrupted by an attack on the places in which they work. Parents of school-aged children are uncertain if today will be the day their school has a vigilante. Hospital workers are already dealing with the Omicron variant, and now uncertain if today will be the day they’re dealing with shrapnel.
Uncertainty abounds, and that leads to one thing we can be certain of: many Americans on January 6th are in a state of threat.
When it comes to anniversaries of traumatic events, the lack of certainty–one of the five domains of social threat and reward–triggers our brains to put us on high alert for potential trouble. This signal to our brain sends the body into a physiological fight-flight-freeze response, reducing the abilities of our prefrontal cortex to keep calm, be collaborative, and remain productive.
Recognizing this response is the first step in keeping tension from escalating into conflict. This is because escalation is actually a cognitive cycle that can be thought of like a merry-go-round. It doesn’t matter where you get on – once momentum kicks in, the only way to break the cycle is to disrupt the motion or get off. So how can we do this?
Preserve your brain power.
Managers dealing with an anxious workforce must preserve their own cognitive capacity in order to lead efficiently. On days when empathy and situational awareness are crucial, leaders need to reduce their excess cognitive load. Are there meetings you can postpone? Is today really the day you need to innovate new concepts for next year’s design? If you start to sense your own cognitive merry-go-round picking up speed, step off by labeling it. Research shows the simple process of labeling a threat as an emotional regulation tool can disengage the fight-or-flight response and bring balance back into the brain.
Acknowledge the situation.
The next thing managers can do is focus on their people and by checking in with them. When angst is anticipated, something as simple as “Are you okay?” can go a long way in making employees feel seen. If you have a team meeting today, saying something like, “I know today is difficult for many people and I want us to recognize we may be operating at different speeds,” could also help. Providing an environment of psychological safety where it’s okay to acknowledge the struggle provides employees with an exit plan for their own cognitive merry-go-round, allowing them to stop the cycle of threat response before it escalates.
On difficult days, managers should make an effort to increase the reward signals they send to their teams. Is this a day where a team lunch could be offered? Or maybe you can schedule a team-building session where the only focus is on relatedness, allowing team members to share in an experience where they feel they belong to a group with a common goal. Keeping the domains of social threat and reward – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – in mind can keep threats low and rewards high, cooling the potential flames of conflict before they heat up.
Focusing on your people is always important. But on days like today, that may be the only thing that matters.