Month: April 2020

by Paula Broadbent Paula Broadbent No Comments

Managing in a crisis

Managing in these strange times

I’ve been coaching kind-of as normal over the past few weeks. I say ‘kind-of’ because of cause I haven’t been walking around green spaces or engaging art galleries but have been working with Zoom calls online.

It’s actually worked surprisingly well. Probably because I already know all my clients well. Time will tell if this format works from the start for new clients, if we stay in lock-down.

As I hold the space for my clients to think and pay attention to the shape of their thinking, a pattern quickly formed. It struck me that David Rock’s SCARF model encompassed a lot of what we focused on in our sessions. So I thought it may be helpful to share the theme of these insights more broadly.

For those who haven’t worked with Rock’s model before it speaks to our brain’s natural response to threat and reward. We run away from threats and so elements that may trigger a threat response need to be carefully managed. On the flip side we walk towards reward. Managing each element well can not only manage fears in ourself and others, but also produce a positive response.


There are many books written on this topic and how it affects how we act. As social mammals we are naturally very conscious of our status in a group. Suspecting a fall in status can trigger a strong threat response and cause us to act in unhelpful ways. Within a team it’s always useful to give status to different members. Providing clarity about who is the ‘expert’ in each area, and who is in charge of what. This may have changed as teams and how they work has changed. Its worth doing a quick sense check to ensure no-one in your team could be feeling a loss of prestige. Or whether anyone in the team is using the change to increase their status by taking over elements which may not previously have been in their domain.


Wow, well this has taken a hit. Its really hard to be clear about when we’ll be out of lock-down and how it will affect individuals, teams, businesses and society both in the short and long-term. There is so much we can’t manage in this box. However, we can provide certainty and clarity about things within our control. This will help reduce the threat response to some degree. We can also stay conscious of making sure we don’t make knee-jerk decisions where possible, nor change our mind about everyday work we’re doing. In short, being consistent and clear will enable us to do what we can to manage certainty for others right now. Even I (usually the queen of the ever flexible diary) has had to put a routine in place right now to manage the chaos.


One of my clients commented yesterday that he feels he has to deliver twice as much because his boss can’t see him at his desk and so can’t be clear he’s working hard. If you’re not used to working from home, both leaders and those in their team would benefit from being mindful of how they handle the extra autonomy this can bring.

From a leader’s perspective it’s great practice at ensuring you’ve effectively ‘passed the baton’ and micro-management is off the agenda. As long as you’ve clearly set out what needs to be done and why with a clear idea of the standard you expect, it’s a great opportunity to sit on your hands and see what happens. Distance yourself from the task, but check in with the person. Make sure they’re feeling confident and on track.

From a team member’s perspective, now you can access your whole work computer (not just your phone) it can be tempting to work longer and longer hours. It’s worth creating a clear segregation between work and home. Don’t let the increased autonomy allow work to overwhelm your life.


There was a study completed by Naomi Eisenberger which always makes me wince when I think of it. Her research involved volunteers playing an online game called ‘Cyberball’. She set up the conditions to make participants believe they were playing a ball passing game with several other participants on a computer. They couldn’t see the other people. But what they could see was a virtual ball being passed between them. At a certain point, they stop passing the ball to the research volunteer. They are left out. The sensors reading their brain waves recorded activation in the same part of the brain that registers physical pain.

It’s so pertinent for these times when we are working remotely to take care to include all of the team. It may be easier right now for some team members to feel left out, whether this is a fair perception or not.

It’s also important to make space for the every day bonding we may be missing right now. It’s good practice at the start and end of virtual meetings to check in and it also allows relationships to flourish. I’ve heard of examples of using to allow webinar participants to create a virtual word cloud of how they’re feeling at the start of meetings. Also of Thursday afternoon quiz sessions just for fun, no work involved.


It may be easier to misunderstand or misinterpret written or virtual communication when not in the room with others. We take more than we realise from body language and feeling the vibe in the room. It’s always worth taking care to go first to a generous interpretation of events when we are triggered by others, and not make assumptions about their motives. This may be particularly important to ensure we maintain fairness in our interactions with others right now.

I’m sure there are many other examples of how the current crisis can spark each of the elements of SCARF and also how we are learning how to positively influence each of them at this time. I’d love to hear about them.

If you’d like to read more about the SCARF model, David Rock’s book ‘Your Brain at Work‘ is published by Harper Business Press.

Have a great weekend and keep well in these challenging times,