The current economic climate is generating a fear factor. With yet more banks in crisis and the economic conditions in Europe spooking our financial markets, life has rarely seemed more gloomy and uncertain.

With the speed of economic change we are experiencing, it is easy to miss the changes in our own company. Yet there is no doubt this general sense of uncertainty will be having an impact on the workforce and even the senior team.

Neuroscience, the science of how the brain works, is showing us that as humans we are hard wired to notice threat – the economic issues – and that when we feel especially threatened our prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain which enables planning, rational decision-making and critical thinking) closes down. This is just the type of brain power we need to weather the economic conditions.

Threat is felt in four key areas. We call this the CORE model and it stands for Certainty, Options, Reputation and Equity. What the model helps us understand is that a threat to any of these elements will impact peoples’ ability to perform. This creates sub optimal brain functioning, poor motivation and engagement and resistance to change, just at the time you need your employees functioning at their maximum capacity.

There are a number of danger signs to look out for as a senior HR partner, to coach and counsel your leaders against:

Focusing too heavily on numbers. Good metrics are important to the business but when the focus becomes obsessive and employees are constantly reminded of the numbers over quality or customer interaction, uncertainty rules.

Process over outputs. Maybe one of the key indicators of a fear based workplace is a retreat to the certainty of rules, process and policy. People stop making sensible judgements and instead rely on easy answers that protect them. Whilst we all need policy and process to manage through uncertainty, employees need to be trusted to make the best decisions in situations where there are no clear answers.

Power shifts to the hands of a few. One of our clients told us the story of being lambasted for setting up a meeting of peers to brainstorm ways to better communicate to employees who were concerned about the company’s future. Her manager made it clear any new initiatives rested with him. Initiative was not valued and she would do best to ‘keep her head down.’ Clearly a fearful manager but also a sign that when employees are stopped from creating their own options further threat is created.

Focus on reputation. People are focused on who is in and out of favour. All the talk is about who said what to whom, and whose reputation is growing or waning.

Information is unequally distributed. Closely related to giving employees options in their role is the degree to which information is fairly distributed around the people who need it to perform. A shift towards a culture that allows people to hoard what they know to consolidate their power means a culture where fear has smashed trust. Other indicators of distrust are when employees keep good ideas to themselves rather than sharing so others can perform better too.

This fear factor will only be exacerbated if the behaviour of the senior team provokes more threat than reward. Hiding in their office, only discussing company performance at formal Q & A sessions and restricting their exposure to employees are all signs of a leadership team in fear. CORE affects them too.

Many of these feelings happen at an unconscious level, but drive unhelpful behaviour none the less. As a senior HR person your role is to recognise the signs and help leaders to create a more positive environment which acknowledges and mitigates the threat elements.