Applying neuroscientific insights to help manage uncertainty amidst COVID-19


Uncertainty can cause high levels of stress and anxiety – impacting one’s ability to focus and function effectively. Orla O’Neill discusses how insights from psychology and neuroscience can help leaders manage these feelings of uncertainty to help maintain focus and productivity within their virtual teams.

The current global situation is creating a new reality that our brains find undesirable. Many things seem unknown today, and uncertainty will almost certainly prevail over the coming weeks.

From a neuroscientific perspective, this situation is extremely taxing – both emotionally and cognitively. For example, higher decision-making areas of the brain, such as the frontal lobes, may struggle to find parameters to feel confident about forward planning. This, in turn, can cause emotional regions of the brain, such as the amygdala, to take control, resulting in heightened levels of psychological tension and increased feelings of anxiety.

As well as this heightened emotional response, individuals may also find it more difficult to concentrate as cognitive resources are limited. Our brains are now in a constant state of threat, making it challenging to multi-task as our attentional space is likely to be monopolized by anything related to COVID-19. Ultimately, this results in difficulties paying attention, making measured decisions, and in thinking creatively.

So, how can we reconcile this uncertainty? How can we help maintain a sense of wellbeing and, at the same time, help ensure that we are productive at home during this crisis?

David Rock, Director of the Neuroleadership Institute, draws on insights from neuroscience to offset this uncertainty. Specifically, he postulates that the SCARF model – a model which describes the fundamental social concerns that drive human behaviour – can be applied in the context of COVID-19 to help manage overall productivity when working from home, and general feelings of anxiety and worry.

The five letters of SCARF stand for:

  • STATUS – our need to feel that we, and our work, are valued
  • CERTAINTY – our need to know what will happen next
  • AUTONOMY – our need to feel like we have some control over what we do on a daily basis
  • RELATEDNESS – our need to feel like we are in a community and among friends
  • FAIRNESS – our need to feel like we are being treated fairly compared to our colleagues and friends

SCARF and COVID-19: what might this mean for leaders? 

The SCARF model may prove particularly useful when managing remote teams. Below are some of the domains to consider in the context of COVID-19.


As many of us continue to work remotely with our virtual teams, it is common to feel isolated or ‘out of things’ as a result of not being ‘visible’ to managers or colleagues, or feeling as though our work is going unnoticed. This can create what Rock describes as “a perception of a potential or real reduction in status.”

Conversely, leaders who clearly communicate expectations, give employees latitude to make decisions, and treat the whole organisation fairly will prompt a reward response – resulting in a ‘reward brain state’ and making others in the organisation more effective and more innovative.

For leaders, ideas for increasing status during periods of uncertainty might include:

  • Involve others in decisions, where possible, particularly ones that will have a direct impact on their work
  • Ask your teams members for their views on strengths and opportunities
  • Give consistent feedback on what your team does well


When we face uncertainty about the future, events can feel like they are out of our control. This, in turn, activates the limbic system in the brain which often triggers negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety – emotions that we are typically motivated to try to reduce.

Obviously, whilst we can’t be certain what will happen with this outbreak or how long it will last, you, as a leader, can help create a sense of certainty about how you, your team and the organization are coping with the challenge. This can be achieved, for example, by regularly sharing relevant business updates, by articulating how various strategies have been developed and by sharing how particular decisions have been made.

Just imagine all the things one may feel uncertain about at home on their own. Simple questions will need answers: how often should I check in with my line manager? How do I keep my clients confident that work is carrying on? What are the priorities I should focus on this week?

And whilst creating certainty once is helpful, in an ever-changing situation like COVID-19, creating certainty frequently is essential.


In the current situation, we’re also experiencing a steep reduction in autonomy. We’ve never had to live through something like this and we are understandably unsure of how to feel or act – which could result in feeling out of control both personally and professionally.

Consequently, as we continue to live with COVID-19, it's vital to make clear to your team what they CAN control and what they can decide for themselves. Being thrust into an unexpected scenario is unsettling for everyone, and it is therefore important to help your team to understand what factors they have some control over - particularly in relation to their work.

For example, you could help your team identify and set clear priorities to focus on for their week ahead. Whilst some people will naturally decide what to do, others might have a preference to understand the parameters within which they work to be very clear – especially if this is their first experience of working from home.


With social-distancing in place, there is also a sharp decrease in in-person connectedness, and social support. According to neuroscientist Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, sustained loneliness activates an avoidance mechanism in the brain, meaning that you are more likely to be skeptical of others, which then makes you withdraw even further.

Social distancing may seem a bit like an oxymoron at the moment, whereby being unsocial and staying away from others is actually helping others. However, we all fundamentally need regular social interaction and it’s therefore essential to maintain those social connections. You, as a leader, can invoke a sense of relatedness in a number of different ways:

1. By encouraging team members to maintain a daily connection with the people they care about via video

2. By working out how you, as a team, can help others at this time – prosocial activation in the brain is very rewarding

3. By encouraging laughter and connection on a non-work-related basis

4. By delivering unexpected positive outcomes within the company, and by sharing how our communities and people are pulling together

5. By focusing your people on shared goals – shared goals can be powerful as you’re working together


Neuroscience tells us that the fairness feeling is controlled by the same part of the brain that is related to feeling pain. So, feeling unfairly treated really does hurt. In the context of COVID-19, a sense of unfairness could relate to the fact that some employees may still have to go into work on a daily basis.

As a leader, you should be transparent and ensure that these people understand that their work and extraordinary efforts don’t go unnoticed. In addition, you could show your team that you personally care and greatly appreciate what they’re doing. From a psychological perspective, we tend to take on the emotions of a high-status person in any team. Thus, feeling truly appreciated and valued could help counteract any notions of unfairness.

Orla is a Communications and Employee Engagement Executive at Agilisys. Orla graduated last year with an MSc from King's College London, specialising in Clinical Neuroscience, and is interested in applying psychological and neuroscientific insights to help cultivate healthy and effective organisations

Orla O'Neill