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Mobilizing Your Prefrontal Cortex in Uncertain Situations

Mobilizing Your Prefrontal Cortex in Uncertain Situations

Adaptability is the key to successful leadership. Being able to fly a plane while also changing its engine has always been one of the most important abilities of a leader. We have to be decisive in uncertain situations to keep the business running, empathetic and reassuring towards our anxious team members, and realistically optimistic when everything seems dark. Our teams are looking to us for guidance—now more than ever.

By Amélie de Marsily, Academic Director of the IE Center for Health, Well-Being and Happiness.



Strong leaders know how to recover quickly from adversity. They believe in their ability to control their own fate. We all have the same ingrained stress response system, but strong leaders are also resilient. Even when they cannot change the situation at hand, they know that they can control how they respond to the situation instead of just reacting.

This means trying to become aware of how we engage emotionally with different situations. Self-awareness helps us develop a skillful response using our logical reasoning to understand the different variables at hand. As leaders, we have to constantly reframe our emotional state in order to stay focused and rational. We must concentrate on things that we can impact, such as the continuity of our business or the safety of the people around us, and let go of things we cannot control, like for instance the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus. Our feeling of helplessness breeds fear, whereas moment-to-moment self-awareness is empowering.

Stress and anxiety affect our decisions

Stress and anxiety are born from fear, a mechanism for making quick “fight-flight-freeze” decisions. They can save our life if, for example, we are being chased by a wild animal. However, in today’s VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—the threats we usually face do not pose an immediate danger to our lives. In this context, making decisions under the influence of fear—that is, reacting rather than responding—can lead to mistakes and erode interpersonal relationships.

Learn to mobilize your prefrontal cortex—your decision-making center—to decide how to respond to a situation, while holding your fight, flight, and freeze reactions at bay. This is simple but not easy, particularly because the more rational part of our brain is much slower and requires an intentional act to set it in motion.

In today’s ever-changing environment, striking the right balance between the urgent and the important is more challenging than ever. Speed is sometimes of the essence. However, when stressful situations arise, it is urgent to go slow—however counterintuitive this might sound.

Practical tips

  • When you start to feel that the pressure is too high, get up and move your body. Perhaps do a few squats or stretches. This is a great way to stop your mind from ruminating.
  • Take a few deep breaths to calm your autonomic nervous system, which manages your stress levels. Breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down.
  • Think about the things that you can impact. Where will your action be most useful? Should you support your leaders by offering new ideas, or simply stay out of the way?
  • Bring in specialists who understand the issue you are trying to tackle. Decisions made under pressure and without expert input can have long-lasting negative effects.

Change is, by definition, unsettling. This crisis has reminded us, first and foremost, to look after our own health and the health of our teams, physically, intellectually, relationally, and emotionally. Taking things day by day also helps, focusing on what you can do, and staying informed without overdosing on anxiety-inducing news or relationships. And remember to practice kindness, empathy, and compassion, which are the foundation of any human relationship.