I am sure you have heard many stories of people performing superhuman feats when in life-threatening situations. Known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and first described by American psychologist Walter Bradford as long ago as 1915, it is basically the activation of our brain’s automated survival mode. Here is how it works:
Your brain’s most important function is to keep you alive. It does so by regulating your heart rate, body temperature and a myriad other physiological functions but also by constantly scanning the environment for possible threats and rewards. What we refer to as our ‘senses’ is in fact a finely tuned network of nerves connecting our brains with our ears, eyes, nose, lips/tongue, skin, and rest of our body parts via the spinal cord. Sensory nerves continuously gather information from the environment and then send it back to the central nervous system where it is assessed for possible threats or rewards. So, as you walk through any unfamiliar surroundings, your brains are already on high alert, even if your travel-weary minds are not consciously aware of this.
When a threatening event suddenly appears, your brain’s limbic systems (the amygdala, in particular) responds in a fraction of a second by activating the sympathetic nervous system which causes a release of hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline which in turn ‘supercharge’ them to either fight or flee for survival. As part of this process your heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing accelerates, pupils dilate, and blood vessels in many parts of your body become constricted to force more blood into the larger muscles where the blood vessels become dilated for better performance. The result: in fully automated “flee” mode you turn around and probably run faster than ever before to reach the safety.
Scanning the Social Jungle
So, what’s new and what does outrunning a startled wild animal have to do with the majority of the world’s population whose only contact ever with predators are on Discovery Channel or in the zoological Parks? Quite a bit – one of the most significant findings in neuroscience research over the last couple of years has been that the same automated neural responses which are activated when we face a physical threat such as an alligator or lion are also activated in social situations. Your brain is not only constantly scanning the physical environment for possible threats, it is also closely monitoring the social environment – wherever you are interacting with other people. When you are enjoying supper with the family; supporting your child at a sporting event; working out at the gym; or trying to hold your own during a meeting at work – the behavior of those around you is closely scrutinized and any perceived threat can trigger the fight or flight response in your brain.
What makes it worse is that threat responses have a greater impact and are far more powerful and easier to trigger than reward responses. In other words, we experience negative interactions with other people much more intensely than positive interactions of similar magnitude. So, when you are in a meeting and you tell someone that they are not performing as expected, the negative impact of that criticism is much greater than the positive impact when, for instance, you thank someone for a job well done. What this amounts to is that our negative interactions can trigger automated ‘fight or flight’ responses at any time and in any place.
Fewer Resources for Clear Thinking
Why is this so bad? In a time when, more than ever before in history we need people to be engaged and motivated and creative in order to give us the competitive edge, fight or flight responses can be a serious detriment to a group or an individual’s success. While a sarcastic remark from a colleague or a scowling manager would hardly send most of us running back to our cubicles, an activated fight or flight mode does have a severely negative impact on our ability to perform. When the brain senses a threat, even in the office, it allocates more of its resources such as glucose and oxygen to the muscles and parts of the body needed to fight or flee (resulting in the same physiological changes as described earlier). As a result, the Prefrontal Cortex – the part of the brain where conscious thought takes place – our ‘working memory’ – receives less resources and its working is thereby impaired (this effect could last for up to four hours after the threat-incident). When our brains are in this threat-induced ‘limp mode’, it severely impairs our ability to:
§ solve problems;
§ make decisions;
§ think creatively;
§ focus your attention;
§ discern between right and wrong;
§ memorize information;
§ recall information;
§ communicate effectively;
§ collaborate with others;
§ understand consequences;
§ cope with adversity;
§ correctly interpret other people’s behavior; and
§ inhibit impulses.
Cavemen in Suits and High Heels
The human race has devised technology which has radically transformed the world we live in and will continue to do so for years to come. We have powerful telescopes that can peer into deepest space; we have super computers that can perform complex calculations in the blink of an eye; we travel faster than the speed of sound; we create data at a scale that could never be conceived before; we have access to nearly all the world’s information via the internet; and we can communicate with just about anyone, anywhere, anytime.
However, in spite of these great advancements our brains are still operating much as it did thousands of years ago when it had to protect us from wild animals. Just how primitive our brains still are in this regard is illustrated by a study in 2011 which found that even when people look at pictures of animals, specific parts of the amygdala respond almost instantly. So, while we are living in this high-tech world of miracles and wonder, our brains are still pretty much in the cave, trying to keep us alive not only by responding to real physical threats, but also to perceived sharks and grizzly bears in the social environment.
The Price of Your Roar
From the brain’s perspective, workplaces become ‘enemy territory’ if leaders or co-workers behave in a way that trigger constant threats. In such conditions, people are simply not able to perform at their best. Over time they become chronically stressed (an enduring fight or flight condition) and as a result even more sensitive to perceived threats. Thus a negative snowball-effect is created where critical success factors such as job satisfaction, trust, motivation, engagement, productivity and the overall well-being of individuals all diminish as their brains are constantly engaged in a fight for survival. The cost in terms of results and revenue could be considerable.
Here is the best part: It is true that when faced with a perceived threat (even non-physical threats) the brain reacts PHYSICALLY and shuts a lot of thinking (preparing the body to do battle); however, the brain also does the exact opposite when it perceives an opportunity and lights up the brain, releasing “feel-good” neuro-peptides and increasing brain function.
As leaders, understanding this gives us the opportunity to change our behavior in order to minimize the negative effect that it might have on those around us. While changing behavior is often difficult, neuroscience research is showing that rewiring our brains and changing our behavior is indeed possible. By practicing the principles of neuroscience in combination with the Quantum Physics of Beliefs, we can stop being the predators which others run away from, and instead become the catalysts of positive engagement.
Understanding how people’s behavior and our interactions in the social environment impacts our neurological processes is also a powerful starting point to manage our own brains and minimize negative responses such as stress, anxiety, emotional thinking and aggression. (Please read my other blog posts for some practical tips on how to practice these principles.)
Now, here’s the REALLY interesting thing… we have found that the axiological (HVP/VQ) Personality Profile identifies exactly which way(s) of thinking are likely to perceive things predominantly as threats and which ones will see opportunities. Then, we can teach people how to shift their perspective from threat to opportunity in a heartbeat. This is even beyond Emotional Intelligence.
Knowing what the brain is doing is good. Being able to willfully change how you think is even better. The power of neuro-axiology lies in giving people the ability to transform themselves in an instant, rather than having to either release or suppress the stress. It empowers people to shift perspectives and go from stressed to blessed in a heartbeat.
In our daily lives, we connect with our stakeholders, processes, and polices with every transactions. We know what can be done better and what frustrates our shareholders and how we can improve the customer experience. Even so, we work for hierarchical organizations and although we say that titles don’t matter, they matter from a fear perspective. We have many leaders that lead from a more traditional (and antiquated) management style – controlling, monitoring, delegating, etc. Our leaders don’t realize that they are leading from a perspective that creates ‘fight or flight’ responses for their employees and our employees revert back to the safe mode of just doing what they are told. Although the fear response leaders evoke from their followers is unintentional, I believe that this article may help raise a great question for today’s leaders, “Rather than trying too hard to change those around me, maybe it’s my behaviors I need to change to create a safe environment in which my followers can change.”
Dr Surya M Ganduri, PhD. PMP. is the Founder & President of eMBC, Inc., an international firm specializing in strategic and executive leadership development processes that Help People Succeed in an Evolving World. Dr Surya has over 28 years of business experience in management consulting, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvements, organizational development and youth leadership. For more information visit www.eMBCinc.com or contact eMBC, Inc., directly at (630) 445-1321.