February  27,  2020

The coronavirus is not only infecting people’s bodies, it’s in their heads. The vast majority of the world will not be affected by the virus, now named COVID19, but we all feel its presence. The people in your organization are no exception. The global health threat affects them emotionally, and that means it affects your business.

So what can you possibly do in the face of something so much bigger than your organization? You can make the experience feel familiar, controlled, and successful.

We use the science of the brain to help our clients navigate big challenges. These three principles are key.

  • Creating connections between the current experience and other experiences makes people feel it’s familiar. This dampens the brain’s fear responses so people can hear you and engage.
  • No one wants to step forward in the dark. Feelings of control disrupt that paralysis and help people use their higher brain functions to solve problems and take positive action.
  • Winning and sharing success release “feel good” and “connection” chemicals, which reinforce those positive actions and create the engagement you want.

But seriously, the coronavirus? Yes, you can use these principles to help your people get through this very uncertain time.


How do you make an unprecedented event feel familiar? Well, you tap into past positive experiences.

Was there a big threat to your organization that you handled well? Compare this experience to that by reminding people how you got through it together. “Ten years ago, the H1N1 presented us with similar risks. Here’s how we handled that.” “Remember 2017, when we faced that disruption to our supply chain?” Talk about how dire the situation was, and the progress milestones you hit along the way.

Are there people or processes they are used to? Use those. If employees have a place they go for reliable information, make sure information on the health threat is there. If there’s a leader who delivers consistent and reliable information, make sure that’s the voice they hear. Familiarity turns off the fear response so employees can turn their focus to business as usual.


What? Isn’t an epidemic the very opposite of “controlled?” It is, but there are ways to encourage feelings of control.

One way is to create predictability. Tell employees what will happen, and when. And then deliver. When will you give them updates? Who will deliver them? What preventive measures will they experience? Make sure you speak in plain terms, not medical jargon, so all listeners feel sure they understand your message.

Another way to create control is to give people agency – in other words, let people take some action to help themselves and others. Feeling helpless is the enemy, so give them something to do. Give employees a channel for asking questions — then make sure you answer them! Introduce safety processes, no matter how simple, that employees can act on. For example, you might make it easier for employees to wash their hands properly. You could allow employees to put themselves on a “no fly” list temporarily, opting out of non-essential international travel. You could ask employees to post company updates on progress against the threat in common spaces. You might publish simple safety practices for employees’ families, as well. Meaningful actions, no matter how small, make people feel they are doing something to protect themselves.


What are you, the CDC? How can you successfully fight the coronavirus? You can’t, of course. But you can make the people feel successful at what they want – to be safe from it. Share positive updates, like safety measure implemented. “100% of employees now have access to our weekly update.” “All business travel to Asia has been suspended for the time being.”

And share successes for the world outside your organization. If infection rates drop in a particular country, let them know. If scientists have a target date for a vaccine, make sure it’s out there. Visible successes create a sense that the organization is moving through the crisis and will emerge healthy on the other side.

We’re all in uncharted territory, and we look to our leaders for guidance. You can do more than that – you can make a significant positive difference for your employees and your business by using the science of the brain.