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Brain circuits

How to create the conditions for your teams to thrive

IbyIMD+ Published 20 December 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

The extended period of uncertainty we are all living through right now is bringing a wide variety of stressors into our lives. The workplace, whether virtual or in-person, is not immune to this. Based on neuroscientific principles, leaders can use the FACE model to figure out how to create a more psychologically safe environment for their employees.

Stress triggers four buttons in our brain that are interrelated: fairness, autonomy, certainty, and empathy. In stressful circumstances, it can be helpful to discuss which areas are the most challenging for your team.


Unfairness elicits strong emotions in humans. Expression reduces negative emotion. If you encourage people to express how they feel without resolving the issue, then the intensity of those negative feelings is reduced. It is important to understand it is not about addressing the problem; the person just needs to feel accepted and heard.

Therefore, leaders must have the courage to create a “secure base space” where people can express their negative feelings as well as positive ones.


People need the freedom to act. The degree of control that organisms can exert over a stress factor determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. Agency is healthy.

Leaders can increase feelings of autonomy by giving people a choice within a given frame. When people can choose, they commit versus comply.


The most challenging thing for human beings is uncertainty over an extended period of time. People can deal with both good news and bad news, but not knowing is extremely difficult.

For leaders, it is important to give as much clarity as possible. It means managing expectations and meeting any commitments you make. Avoid overpromising and underdelivering.


Social disconnection causes social pain. Research has shown that if someone is excluded it lights up the same part of the brain as physical pain. Therefore, it is extremely important to make sure your employees feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. In stressful times, it is helpful to create opportunities for people to connect one to one, one to a few and one to many.

Reflect on how you, as a leader, can create opportunities for people to collaborate and interact both professionally and socially.

In stressful times, it is important to increase the amount you communicate. In the absence of communication, people will fill a void with FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Therefore, being open and accessible can reduce the negative emotions that impact wellbeing and productivity.

If any of the components of FACE are affected negatively, it will evoke a very powerful response. A challenge in one area can be offset by working on the others. As a leader, you can focus on enhancing each of these areas in a positive way to create the conditions for people to thrive.


Susan Goldsworthy

Susan Goldsworthy

Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD

Susan Goldsworthy OLY is an Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD. Co-author of three award-winning books, she is also an Olympic swimmer. She is a highly qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments. She is Director of the IMD Executive Coaching Certificate.


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