19 May 2020

Building Employee Resilience with Neuroscience

Building Employee Resilience with Neuroscience

In the wake of COVID-19, helping employees deal with change is an important skill to have as a project manager.

So how can you use neuroscience to improve your teams’ experience, foster resilience and subsequently enhance performance?

Recent neuroscience research provides strategies that project leaders can use to assist others to maintain optimal brain fitness in the midst of change.

By building a higher level of brain fitness within your organisation, as a project leader you can leverage the inevitable change and uncertainty, as a competitive advantage rather than a stumbling block.


Human brains function best when we have a sense of safety and control. The uncertainty associated with changes in business models, organisational structure, disruptive technologies and the like - reduce both control and safety for employees.

The ability to communicate on both the informational and emotional level helps to build strong, trusting relationships and is the hallmark of an effective project leader.

What you can do - Have frequent and multi-way communications with employees. This will not only increase the alignment between your team but also will create an important foundation for building resilience to change-induced uncertainty.



Human brains have a built-in threat-detector that quickly picks up on any change. Each and every change is assessed to determine if it presents a danger.

When people feel threatened and unsafe, there are significant neurochemical and blood-flow changes that result in less brainpower (i.e. thinking capacity) being available for higher-order thinking, memory and problem-solving.

What you can do - Employees gain a sense of predictability and control when project leaders provide information, clarity about what to expect, and resources for dealing with the change. This reduces the anxiety and discomfort associated with uncertainty. Given employees may have reduced capacity to ‘take-in’ new information when they are stressed, project leaders should repeat and reinforce important messages through multiple channels.



Project leaders can also facilitate coping with change, by creating an opportunity for employees to express their reactions/feelings. Simply labelling emotions, either verbally or in writing, has been associated with immediate reductions in perceived stress and boosting the ability to think more clearly.

Likewise, this same labelling technique is correlated with improvements in memory, concentration and attention - prerequisites for complex problem-solving. Labelling emotion enables people to tap into the ‘thinking’ part of the brain instead of being limited to the ‘emotional’ part, thereby creating a ‘neurological bridge’ that helps us use this information more productively.

What you can do - Project leaders often make the mistake of thinking they have to solve their employees’ problems or somehow rid them of their emotions. In fact, simply listening attentively demonstrates respect, compassion and provides the employee with the opportunity to begin to think more clearly about how they wish to deal with the issue at hand.



In addition to being able to label emotion, it is helpful for people to take an active role in their own coping and adjustment to change. When stressed or feeling unsafe, many people will go into avoidance or shut-down mode.

Effective project leaders encourage people to take an active role in adapting to organisational changes. This can include encouraging peer support and collaborative problem-solving related to coping with change.

What you can do - Many people neglect their health when under stress. Neurologically, this is the time the brain needs the most care. Encouraging people to get enough sleep, exercise, have adequate nutrition and opportunities for social engagement, contributes to increases in specific brain chemicals that are essential for new learning. Exercise also helps to reduce the stress hormones that can impair thinking, memory and coping.



Employees are better able to cope with change and likely to build resilience for long-term coping and performance if they have accurate information, are given an opportunity and encouragement to acknowledge losses and difficulties, and have access to useful resources - including other people.


Dr Connie Henson, the author of BrainWise Leadership, has international experience designing culture change, business transformation and leadership development programs that are informed by the latest neuroscience research. Connie’s driving force is to create company cultures that people want to work for, do business with and have in their community. For more information visit: Learning Quest or LinkedIn.