April 21st, 2020

How Neuroscience Can Help Dentists Lead Their Teams Through COVID-19

Dave Striegel, Ph.D. has been studying the neuroscience of leadership and applying it to dentistry for several years. He is convinced it can serve as a beacon of light in this storm and provide important leadership skills for dentists.

“We are overwhelmed. We are afraid. We are human,” says Striegel. “To lead our teams most effectively through this global crisis requires us to understand the brain.”

Striegel cites the work of Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, and co-founder and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Rock’s work is based on the knowledge that when something happens to us, the brain’s primary organizing principle is to assess a situation’s level of threat versus reward.

“When something of the magnitude of the current pandemic occurs, our brains respond swiftly and strongly,” explains Striegel.

Rock’s SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness) explains how the threat response is commonly triggered in the brain and is squarely in play right now. The model provides an approach backed by science for leading teams confidently through challenging times.

“When events happen to us, our brains instinctually lean toward the threat response in an effort to insure our survival, and our first inclination is to fight or flee,” says Striegel. “With the global pandemic threatening both our physical and economic well-being, our brains are exploding with fear. The key at this point is to strive to balance the biological need to react with the functional need to stay even-keeled.”

The five components of the SCARF model provide a framework of where to focus your leadership skills to calm your team so you and they can come out the other side of this pandemic with optimism.

Status: how we fit into our teams

More than anything else, your teams are wondering what will happen to their jobs. Whether the outlook is good or bad, be transparent, compassionate, and honest when communicating with them. If you can, let them know you plan to make sure everyone keeps their job and you want to hit the ground running once the pandemic is over. Such a statement will send a strong message that you anticipate a positive outcome.

Certainty: the level of predictability in our jobs and our knowledge of what is going to happen

Of the five SCARF components, our need for certainty is being challenged the most right now. Establish a regular time each week to update your team and answer questions. Be organized and predictable, but also allow time for informal conversation. Even adding this small element of weekly certainty will help them feel in alignment with you as their leader and will help quiet their brains.

Autonomy: the amount of control we have over our work environment

Uncontrollable stress can feel overwhelming. Give your staff options whenever possible. Even the most basic choices such as what agenda topics to discuss during your weekly meeting can have a huge impact on their sense of control. With many schools closed, be particularly mindful of the stress that team members with children at home are dealing with.

Relatedness: our connection to the people with whom we work

Social distancing is directly in conflict with our need to feel connected to each other. At a time of high stress when we need each other the most, we are instructed to stay away. This can lead to feeling isolated, especially among those who are in a high risk group or live alone. Yet relatedness is the component of the SCARF model that we have the greatest opportunity to leverage for the good right now. If team members are staying home or working remotely, make your weekly team meeting a video gathering. For fun, try other creative ways to stay connected like virtual birthdays, lunches, or happy hours.

Fairness: how we’re treated compared to the rest of our team

If you are forced to cut back at your office, make every effort to reduce hours fairly across your team and distribute the burden evenly. If that’s not possible, then be transparent and direct about what will happen and why. You may have some team members offer to bear more of the burden than others, but allowing one or two people to take the brunt of the sacrifice may not be fair or right.

Dental leadership

COVID-19 Resources