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Workers are in a heightened state of alert. Here’s how leaders can help them through it.

Protocol Workplace

Welcome back to our Workplace newsletter. Today: how to lead through crisis, Amazon’s Delivery Service Partner program, and how women are faring in the workplace.

—Amber Burton, reporter (email | twitter)

Your employees are working in a state of April 2020 anxiety right now

David Rock cares about how you think … or, at least, how your employees think. The co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute has been working in cognitive leadership consulting for just under 25 years. He helps some of the largest tech companies — Netflix, Microsoft and Zoom, to name a few — address their people practices from a neuroscience perspective. It’s a service that has only become more in demand as the global workforce experiences an increasing number of crises.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, many tech leaders are grappling with the question of how to best support employees in and out of the country. Workers in all industries have been in a constant state of heightened alert since the beginning of the pandemic. Rock spoke with Protocol about how prolonged stress and trauma affect employees, and what companies can do to best support their global workforce during this time.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you share the approach NeuroLeadership Institute takes when it comes to consulting tech companies?

We have a team of cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and social scientists, and we do research anywhere from one to four years on topics like: How do you actually design learning properly? How do you address bias properly? How do you create more creative organizations? And then we advise big business and government globally about the people practices … Think of us as a think tank that looks at how to manage people better at scale by focusing on their biology.

Have you seen a trend in the types of questions tech leaders have come to you for help with over the past two years?

Our organization's vision is making companies better for humans through science, and that has suddenly become a huge priority for organizations, tech firms, but really everyone. We had to take care of people better, we had to make companies better for people, because the amount of uncertainty and just psychological pain in our lives was overwhelming for a lot of people. So companies needed to really take their humans more seriously and show a lot greater care and consideration and thoughtfulness.

And then, of course, in the last few years, there's been a deeper respect for science because of everyone's awareness of the pandemic. So we've been very busy advising companies on everything from the right way to do diversity, equity and inclusion to the right way to develop a hybrid leadership model or hybrid operating model.

Early on in the crisis, it was like: What's the right way to maintain good thinking during a crisis like this? As different situations emerge in the world, people come to us and say, “Hey, can you tell us what science says about this particular event?” And right now, people are definitely watching very closely. We have a heightened alert state about events in the world. And we're starting to advise companies on how to think about this.

Can you explain how our current events and the crisis in Ukraine can affect employees from a cognitive standpoint?

There are three different intensities, or qualities, of reaction we have to dangerous experiences around us. The brain is built to keep us alive, fundamentally. And the way it does that is avoiding dangers and maximizing opportunities. But first and foremost, we avoid dangers. And the way we assess dangers is actually in three broad categories.

The first category is actually a state that's good for being productive, although not creative. So this first level of threat that you detect is essentially kind of feeling alert but not alarmed. It's like the equivalent of having two or three coffees and focusing a lot. You are being productive, but you're not very creative.

Is that that first level triggered by something like an external news event, or is that something like a manager emailing a team to step up its productivity?

[Something like] you suddenly realize you've forgotten a deadline you've got to hit. Or, you know, an executive says you've got to hit this target by this time. And so you're still productive — in fact, you may be even more productive — but you're less creative. So we call that a Level One threat.

And it's not healthy to be in any threat state continuously, but Level One threat is productive, at least. But ideally you want to shift out of a threat state into a reward state where you're open and curious and calm. That's generally a much better state for well-being. Even your immune system works better when you're feeling slightly happy, not slightly anxious.

The Level Two threat response is when your brain detects a potential real problem on the horizon, and it's essentially preparing you for something really bad. If you're walking in the woods and you hear a noise that sounds like a bear a long way off, you'll be in Level One threat. But if the same noise now sounds like it's over the hill, now you're in Level Two threat: You’re really alert and quite alarmed. But it's when you see the bear that you're in Level Three. You're actually fully in the amygdala hijack, as it's called.

And so the way we've been built is if we see a potential mortal danger, even though it's not here with us, we act as if it could be and we prepare. And unfortunately, Level Two threat response is really poor for all kinds of cognitive processing. That's the feeling of being frazzled, of not being able to focus. You're not running screaming down the hallway, but you seem to keep reading the same email over and over. That's the state a lot of the world is in right now.

That being said, what can leaders realistically expect and ask from their employees while dealing with this current level of threat and global crisis?

One of the things to turn down that threat is to bring people together under common goals. When you feel like you're working with people on the same kinds of things, it creates a reward response in the brain that turns down the threat response. And also, taking pro-social actions can really turn down the threat response. So if your company is able to help with the crisis in Ukraine, for example, you might find that people rallying to do something productive could really help everyone. People want to feel like there’s something they can do. If this thing continues, there's going to be increasing upward pressure from employees for companies to act in every way they can.

I think the other thing is reminding people of the priorities that you need to achieve, and at the same time giving people a little slack and having a little empathy and understanding that folks have slipped back into something that resembles April or May 2020, where we feel out-of-control levels of anxiety.

What should the act of checking in on workers look like right now?

I think people really appreciate the feeling of connection to others. When our sense of certainty goes down, it's really helpful to feel more connected with people: It offsets the threat. So this is a great time to increase the all-hands meetings where everyone's on camera, and it's a great time to increase your check-ins with people: your team meetings, your one-on-ones. Some people will find this time very, very difficult so I wouldn't assume everyone's just sailing through all this uncertainty. A number of people will be really struggling.

Amazon’s entrepreneurship dreams fell short of delivery

Amazon’s Delivery Service Partner program was advertised as a way for people to start their own delivery company with no experience required. The application requires $10,000 in startup capital and the company touts the potential for partners to earn $75,000, or even as much as $300,000, every year. But some contractors say that’s far from what they earned. My colleague Anna Kramer spoke with several DSP owners about their experiences. “It’s not a partnership. This is working for Amazon. We DSPs are not business owners, we’re paid managers. They control every aspect,” one anonymous source told Protocol. Kramer reported that many of the people involved in the program are afraid to quit because they fear the tens of thousands of dollars in fees they might incur when they do.

Read the full story.


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Today's tips & tools

Want to quickly explain something to a co-worker? Try the Loom Chrome extension. Loom, the asynchronous video-recording app, blew up during the pandemic as an easy way to express yourself without having to set up a Zoom. Downloading the extension is a good way to test it out.

— Lizzy Lawrence, reporter (email| twitter)

International Women’s Day

Today marks International Women’s Day. By now, most leaders know that women were some of the hardest-hit employees during the pandemic, with many stepping away from the workplace due to shifting caretaking needs. Priorities shifted, and with them so did employees’ needs from their employers. Job-listing site Indeed released new insights detailing how women’s needs at work have changed. In a survey of over 1,000 professionals about how the pandemic has affected their work lives and altered their priorities, Indeed found:

  • 83% of the women surveyed said they "crave flexibility over stability in a working environment.”
  • 51% of women said they are “likely” and 41% said they are “very likely” to now prioritize flexibility over stability in their work lives.
  • 54% said mental health strain including burnout, anxiety and fatigue became an obstacle to full-time work following the pandemic.

More stories from us

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A firsthand look at how it really feels to return to the physical office with all your colleagues.

How to avoid the worst hybrid headache.

A new report shows that SF is still the center of the (tech) universe.


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Around the internet

A roundup of workplace news from the farthest corners of the internet.

Women should not be passing out during 3 a.m. work Zoom calls.

We could learn a thing or two from the workers who tried out hybrid work over 50 years ago.

It’s not just you: Workplace tech is way more annoying than personal tech.

Companies are turning up the dial on stock compensation to compete for talent.

U.S. flight routes are signaling that business travel is still a long way from pre-pandemic levels.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to Have a great day, see you Thursday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the NeuroLeadership Institute advised a company that it has not worked with. This story was updated on March 8, 2022.
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