By Dr. David Rock and Khalil Smith
If you’re feeling anxious about current events, you’re paying attention.
People everywhere have rarely experienced this level of collective emotions. Months of intense uncertainty have been compounded for many by feeling isolated at home. In the US, add to this a deep, seething anger over 100,000+ deaths, tragically skewed towards people of color, at least some of which could have been prevented with stronger leadership. This is mixed with extraordinary levels of unemployment, also skewed to people of color. Now consider millions of people, with unexpected time on their hands, mulling over the lack of change around violence against black men and more general social injustice, and you have a recipe for extreme societal disruption — a giant pile of dry timber, waiting to catch.
Then there’s the spark.
For millions of people, watching the video of George Floyd’s final moments likely activated intense feelings. People have been unable to normalize, rationalize, or explain away what they saw. All they can sense is that this is deeply unfair.
Neuroscientists have shown that a sense of unfairness isn’t just a psychological phenomenon, it activates networks in the brain similar to physical pain or disgust. A sense of fairness is one of five domains that the brain constantly tracks. Right now, many people are experiencing a strong sense of wrongness in the other four (status, certainty, autonomy, and relatedness) as well. If people are already feeling like they are lower status, experiencing uncertainty, have a reduced sense of control over events, feel like others don’t care about them, and feel intense unfairness, then you have hit all five domains, each of which on their own create a strong distress response in the brain.
In this situation, great leadership is going to be critical from every corner of society — not just to affect change within their organizations but in the public realm, too. While it can be easy to feel helpless, there are things that we can do, especially those of us in positions of power, however relative that power may be.
We want every leader to make a difference, whether they lead an organization, a team, a community, or a family. Here’s what science says they should do.
1. Listen deeply
The first step involves making sure people feel heard.
Feeling heard when you’re angry or stressed is one of the few things that can calm a deeply “fired up” mind. Research shows that feeling heard releases strong positive chemistries into the brain, activating reward networks, potentially calming an ignited stress response. This is what FBI negotiators are taught to do when dealing with a hostage taker: listen so well that people feel heard more than they ever have.
In that respect, leaders can’t just encourage conversations; they have to truly listen. It means creating a designated time and place to have open discussions. It means focusing on ensuring people feel psychologically safe enough to voice their questions and experiences. We all have deep, unconscious biases that get in the way of truly understanding another person’s experience. To mitigate these, it will help to do what the late Stephen Covey said: “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”
Listen actively, take notes, and ask follow-up questions that ensure you are getting the true experience of the other person. Seek to explore the root causes of problems, not just your responses to a problem’s most tangible aspects.
2. Unite widely
This experience is dividing people. Leaders need to bring everyone together around shared goals. When we see the goals of others as competing with our goals, we shut out their ideas, we want to see them fail, and we may not experience much empathy for their pain. Classifying someone as a “foe” in this way allows us to do things we would never do to a friend.
When people have a common goal, their brains process things differently. Nothing significant will get done here without bringing people into a large ingroup, whether in your organization or in society. Research shows that when people experience a sense of unfairness and inequality, everyone suffers, not just the afflicted.
Leaders must remind people that we are more similar than we are different. We are all children, siblings, friends, partners in some form. Leaders should share their own challenges, and remind people of their shared humanity. From this shared foundation, find tangible goals in which everyone can participate. In an organization, perhaps this involves working on a significant community project, or bringing calm and purpose to their customers. Leaders will need to unite their people widely on things that matter now.
3. Act boldly
We may very well be in the midst of the next great human rights movement. As a leader, you likely have the privilege of a voice that’s listened to, and resources that can make a difference. Will you look back in a decade, proud at the way you decided to use them? Many of us were moved by the CEO of Target, Brian Cornell, who focused on how easy it is to rebuild a burnt out store compared to restoring a life. How will you move people?
Moving the emotions from outrage to solution will take bold action. In the brain, unexpected rewards (or threats) are by far the strongest. The actions likely to have the most positive responses and calm the minds of the deeply distressed are those that are not just unexpected, but surprising and courageous.
While individual business leaders can’t control political issues or legislation individually, en masse, leaders have power.
This power includes influencing practices, such as seriously committing to diversity as a strategic imperative, deeply examining your organizational systems — visible and invisible — for opportunities to increase fairness, and role modeling what’s right, not what’s easy.
Business and community leaders can collaborate on citywide, statewide, or national initiatives to support racial equality, especially when it comes to fair policing. Significant funds can be put towards bailing out peaceful protestors. Financial investments can be diverted from institutions contributing to or benefiting from systemic racism towards those institutions committed to breaking it down.
At NLI, where we have done research on navigating strong emotional situations, we are offering state and federal governing bodies in the US free (virtual) education for the rest of 2020 on how to de-escalate tough situations. What can your organization do to support positive changes going forward?
Making the “right” decision involves mitigating many biases that prioritize ease, immediacy, and self-interest. We need to accept discomfort as a necessary part of change, and plan for the long term. One strategy to help us make better decisions is to allocate our own resources as if they were someone else’s. Seek diverse perspectives about the actions you should take. Put yourself in the shoes of those directly affected by the suffering. Don’t hide from it, don’t ignore it, and recognize that big change won’t happen with small ideas.
For leaders everywhere, it’s time to listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly. It’s time to lead.
Camille Inge, Dr. Kamila Sip, Ester Neznanova, Barbara Steel, Gabriel Berezin, Mika Liss, Marshall Bergmann, and Katherine Milan contributed to this article.
This article was originally published on Forbes, June 3, 2020.