5 crisis emotions
6th Apr 2020
3 Min Read

5 crisis emotions you should be addressing for your people

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
Behavioural Science

Change impacts different people in different ways. That might seem like an obvious point, but for anyone communicating with employees right now, it’s one that raises a real challenge. How can you possibly react and respond to the various needs of your audience right now, in what are extraordinary circumstances?

The answer lies in empathy. Putting yourself in the shoes of your people and creating content that addresses the headline issues they’re feeling right now will go a long way in helping to assuage any fears they have. The top fears I think people are feeling right now (especially in the workplace) are neatly summarised by David Rock’s SCARF model. While it was designed to be followed in such a way where reward is maximised and threat minimised to increase work performance and get the most out of an organisation's employees, I see a much more compassionate use for it. It’s really about understanding what your people are feeling and what you can do to help.

SCARF maps out the main reasons we feel a sense of threat right now. A long time ago, our brains learned it was in our best interest to focus on things that felt threatening if we wanted to stay alive. Now we are bombarded with new scary messages that create daunting emotions. The biggest threats to one’s sense of self arising from the COVID-19 crisis are largely around issues of control. It feels like ‘this thing’ has happened to us; we don’t have a choice in the matter; we can’t do much about it other than try to follow health guidelines; it’s exposing rifts in society between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ workers that feels unfair; and finally, we don’t know how long this will last.

SCARF stands for:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Let’s look at each in turn, and why it matters.

Status is how we are perceived within groups, and also how we rank our relative importance to others. Right now, people are afraid their jobs might change or disappear entirely, and then where will they be? Coronavirus has been a great leveller: CEOs and administrators alike are doing their best to get their jobs done under extraordinary circumstances. This is highlighting each of our different capabilities and placing increased value on different skill-sets, all of which is interrupting how we typically perceive the status of others. In extreme cases, the inability or failure to adapt to this new normal could result in those people losing their jobs – no matter what their status.

How you can help: Status is relative, and can be increased by promotion, praise, results, appreciation and recognition. Assign team members with natural digital or technical abilities as temporary ‘collaboration leads’ within your team, and always be honest with your own shortcomings and asking for help where you need it. Recognize the efforts of those around you, and saying “thanks” goes a long way in helping people to feel like they are valued, which in turn helps to boost their self-assessment of their status.


Certainty is the absence of doubt, and wouldn’t that be a nice thing to feel right now? Instead, we are mired in uncertainty. What we need most in times of uncertainty is the ability to feel like there is something we can control.

How you can help: Give people back a sense of control. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and in these times, people need to feel like they have some autonomy and freedom. That’s how we regain some of that psychological safety and why it’s important to enable people to effectively keep performing and remind them what’s in their power to control. One way to do this is by asking for their feedback on what’s going well and what’s not going so well in this new way of working, and co-create new ways of working that are adapted to meet the needs of your people. Another key thing to do in times of uncertainty and when things feel risky is to highlight positive performance. People need to feel safe and secure at work in these times. Shine a light on the good things that are going on in your business to focus employee attention on the positive areas of your business. This doesn’t have to be sales or revenue numbers; celebrating the small wins can go a long way in boosting morale and enhancing feelings of safety.


Autonomy is essentially free will and the ability to make our own choices — as well as the ability to carry out the actions that we’ve decided upon. In essence, it’s control over our environment. It helps us to maintain dignity and a sense of self-worth, but right now we may feel like a lot of choice has been taken from us. But one of the lovely things about autonomy is that it promotes flexibility of thought.

How you can help: Share examples where stepping up to be accountable for certain decisions was a boon to the business. This is largely tied to permission. How are your leaders and managers giving people permission to do what they feel they need to do — such as take time off, make certain business decisions, or invest in their mental health?


Relatedness is all about our sense of belonging. We are inherently social creatures, and we need to feel like we are connected and we belong in our group. No one likes to be excluded. Right now, employees will be yearning for ways to connect during this period of physical distancing.

How you can help: Build spaces for connection. For some, it’s been mandatory team happy hours. For others, technology platforms such as custom microsites or Workplace are providing the channel in which people can interact. We’ve even seen digital newsletters start the “work from home diaries.” The point is — there are lots of channels in which to build connections.


Fairness is our urge for a fair distribution. I’d argue that it’s not inequality that bothers us, but rather when things are unfair. And this matters because it increases stress. There’s enough anxiety to go around at the moment, and this situation is highlighting a fundamental issue between fair and unfair.

How you can help: This one is tricky, especially depending on the makeup of your workforce. So, I'm going to close on what may feel like a saccharine note, but the one note that I think is most important not only for this piece, but for this crisis as a whole. Be empathetic. Try to understand what everyone is going through; don’t shy away from acknowledging the areas where things aren’t fair; and think about how you can help bridge those gaps — both in your company and your community.

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