The Framework All Leaders Need to Build a Better Normal

David Rock
4 min readJun 5, 2020

This article originally appeared on Forbes on May 22, 2020.

As the world limps toward recovery, many news headlines seem to suggest we should accept this reality as our “new normal,” as if the story is all bad and out of our control. The truth is, while the pandemic and resulting economic impact are certainly outside our grasp, how we respond to crisis isn’t — especially at the level of each organization, and what we decide to do next.

At NLI, we believe this isn’t a time to build a new normal, but instead, a better normal. Why a better normal? First, because so much of what was happening in organizations wasn’t working already. And second, and this is the big point, this crisis is opening up what may be the most powerful opportunity of a lifetime to make big changes to how we work. For a short time after this event, while emotions are still running high, and so many things are on pause and therefore open to reinvention, leaders and all employees will be more willing to do things differently, take bigger risks with new ideas, and truly make the workplace different, than ever before.

That said, it will be important to act quickly: Soon, emotions will subside and people will have settled into new ways of working, and will likely be less open to new ways of doing things.

So, how do you build a better normal?

One of the challenges around how to think about this opportunity is all the complexity involved. We’ve tried to create some clarity to help organizations think this through better. One key insight we had at NLI is there are quite different kinds of thinking we do, at three different timelines, levels of abstraction, and complexity.

Stay okay day to day, Sustain the new pace of work, and Leverage the moment for the long term. These three strategies help ensure people are in the right frame of mind to accomplish daily tasks, maintain that energy week to week, and begin cultivating a new, lasting culture in the process. Let’s take a closer look at each element of this framework.

Stay okay day to day

Change is highly disruptive and threatening in the brain. When we feel uncertain, helpless, and alone, our cognitive function suffers and we lose the ability to focus. It’s up to leaders to create buffers for themselves against threat, such as by creating routines and caps on news consumption, and send positive, threat-reducing signals to their team, through empathetic conversations and surprise doses of autonomy, as two examples.

Without this one-to-one focus on keeping people okay day to day, no one will be in the right frame of mind to execute on a mid or long-term vision.

Sustain the new pace of work

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been polling hundreds of talent leaders about the ways work has changed. In short, companies are doing things in days they thought would take months, and with much more humanity than ever before. Our poll data shows they also worry about keeping that magic around.

Leaders can make the most of virtual work, which has been shown to be both cheaper and more productive, by holding “speedy meetings,” where 30- and 60-minute meetings get turned into 25 and 50 minutes. They may even consider moving to a 9/80 schedule with a three-day weekend every other week, to reward people’s new tendency to work longer hours with more periods of rest.

With more care given to their cognitive capacity, they’ll be able to show up for work come Monday.

Leverage the moment for the long term

These next few months are critical. On a cultural level, how leaders express — and commit to — their values will reverberate for years to come. On a more practical level, the motivation and energy surrounding this moment will eventually fade, and it will be that much harder later to shake people out of their old ways of working if leaders don’t make an investment now. Decide what’s important, and rally your teams to commit to those values, too.

Over time, the companies that took steps early on to build richer, more human cultures will be far better positioned to succeed than those who merely coasted.

It’s easy to look at change as pure disruption. But that also means everything that was once held sacred is now up for debate. If we can tap into people’s newfound energy to create something bigger and better than before, we can leave the worst parts of work behind to create a better normal for all of us. Now is the time we can all make our organizations better for humans. In the spirit of the moment, let’s be sure to follow the science.



David Rock

Author, consultant, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, and executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, board member of the BlueSchool