As you well know and are likely fully experiencing, this is a tremendous period of uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some of the worst human reactions in response to uncertainty.

Dan Siegal, a neuropsychiatrist has popularized a theory of the “upstairs brain and the downstairs brain”. Our upstairs brain is responsible for empathy, planning, decision-making creativity, logical reasoning and morality. While our downstairs brain is responsible for the basic physical actions (breathing, blinking) as well as emotional impulse (fear, anger).

While Siegal applies this theory to parenting and childhood development, to my layperson view it holds true for adult behaviour. If we look at some of the recent behaviour, (ahem, toilet paper hoarders) then we can see the downstairs brain completely triggered by uncertainty hard at work reacting and shutting down the upstairs brain.

When I refer to a “triggered” brain, it is the “fight, flight or freeze” response that has been activated in reaction to a certain fear factor. David Rock, of the Neuroleadership Institute popularized the term “SCARF” as a simple acronym to summarize this fear response. The SCARF model explains how we humans can be triggered by any number of things, Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. 

When triggered, we begin to act from a version of our worst selves. We are fearful, we are scarce in mindset and action and we create physical and emotional distance. Unmet expectations, misunderstood communications, impacts to status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness can all drive us to work from our downstairs brain.

                                                                      This current climate takes the challenge of being a leader to 10x

If belonging and certainty are primary drivers in creating safety and security for us and our teams (and I’ll bet that covers a large portion of the population) then these are challenging times indeed as leaders. How do we as leaders create certainty when we don’t know what the next day holds? How do we create belonging, connection and relatedness when we are given the guidance to physically distance ourselves from others?

                                                                      The short answer is to shore up the psychological safety within your team.


If we want those around us to be innovative, creative and productive, they need to feel safe and operating from their upstairs brain. Safe to be candid, safe to take risks, and safe to make mistakes. 


When we create an environment that promotes honesty without fear of repercussion, we create psychological safety.  When our teams have safety they develop, innovate and achieve. There are 5 key factors that a leader can directly influence to build psychological safety that we’ve identified from research and have summarised below.

  1. Risks & Mistakes – creativity and risks are encouraged; there is vulnerability to discuss and learn from mistakes.

        Key Questions to consider:

  • Is taking risks and trying new things openly encouraged?
  • Can team members admit mistakes openly?


  1. Commitment & Consistency  – there are clear and consistent approaches and a commitment to follow-through.

      Key Questions to consider:

  • Are there clear and known communications and decision processes in place?
  • Do all members follow-through and do what they say they’ll do?


  1. Candid Communications – there is encouragement of open and honest communication practices involving two-way feedback. 

        Key Questions to consider:

  • Do we actively solicit feedback from one another?
  • Are opinions expressed openly and candidly?


  1. Belonging – there is encouragement of actions that support and create connection between other members of the team.

       Key Questions to consider:

  • Does everyone feel heard, supported and encouraged by one another?
  • Do we know one another and have a genuine interest in one another’s lives?


  1. Constructive Interaction – there is transparency in discussion, productive conflict and diverse perspectives are encouraged.

     Key Questions to consider:

  • Do my team members take accountability for mistakes? Are they defensive?
  • Are challenges brought forward and discussed openly?


                                                                                    Are you curious to learn more about our safety index?


Download the one-page assessment for you to use with your teams. Have an open discussion about how you can create a climate of psychological safety within your team to enhance certainty, fairness and relatedness in a world that is quite uncertain and now physically distanced from one another.