Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fight or Flight? What about the Other Five Fs?

Have you ever witnessed someone so overcome with road rage you wonder how they function day to day? Or someone at work whose emotions just keep getting in the way of getting things done? There’s a relationship between actions like these and the way people often respond to change.

Researchers in Emotional Intelligence (EI), often refer to an “Amygdala Hijack.” The amygdala is a part of the limbic system, the “old” part of the brain we have in common with fish, amphibians and reptiles. It is involved in aggression and fear, and partly responsible for laying down extremely basic memories and responses to the environment.

When stimuli travel through the brain they move from the low levels of the brain, like the limbic system, to the higher levels. This means stimuli reach the parts of the brain responsible for emotions before they reach the higher thinking parts of the brain responsible for conscious thought. This is useful from an evolutionary point of view: we feel before we act. We can move quickly into a “flight or fight” response as soon we feel stressed or threatened and without having to think about it.

Fight or flight

Fight or flight may be too simple a way to think about responses to change and threatening situations. We know the limbic system influences many functions including long-term memory, hunger, thirst, arousal and pleasure seeking. From our knowledge of other animals’ responses to threat we can expand on fight or flight, and add at least another five Fs.

The general fight or flight response does two things. It prepares the body in terms of heart rate, breathing, perception and other physical requirements. It also chooses among a range of spontaneous or intuitive behaviors designed to protect the organism from harm. Here’s where the other five Fs occur.

Freeze, faint, fumble, fidget

Deer in forests know that a sure way to avoid harm is to freeze. It is difficult to track or even see a completely still target at night or against a backdrop of trees and forest. Unfortunately for modern deer, to be frozen in the headlights of a car is no strategy for survival.

Remember the 50s gangster movie cliché of the escaping convicts freezing in the glare of the prison spotlights, hoping not to be seen. Humans are just as prone as animals to automatically adopt the freeze response. Sometimes it’s not as dramatic as the movies, but anyone who has watched a colleague unable to answer the direct questions of the CEO recognizes the behavior.

People also sometimes “faint.” Like “playing possum” or feigning death, this doesn’t have to be literal fainting, just the strategy of appearing to be out of it and so not a fair target. Imagine the team member who “fades” or makes themselves unavailable whenever there is work to be done or accountability to be assigned.

Every sports fan knows the fumble.  Humans and other animals respond to a near miss by making repeated grabs and attempts in the hope that sooner or later the ball (or prey or enemy), will stick. Similarly, fidgeters are always on the go. Stress, threats or just heightened arousal pushes them into constant motion, preparing their body to react as quickly as possible in any way that will beat the odds. These behaviors are automatic and often seem outside conscious control.

OR focus

There is another response that can become equally intuitive and often better serves the purpose in modern life. Eastern religions, sports preparation, anger management counseling and the military are full of examples where repeated attention to the requirements of the environment can train people to intuitively respond to stress, threats or change by heightened focus. The benefits of heightened focus include the sense that “time stands still” and the opportunity to step back and calmly assess the options.

Most of us know someone who is always cool as a cucumber, the kind of person you want around you in an emergency. Change managers can do the same thing during their change initiatives, helping their staff recognize the common responses to threat and encouraging focus on appropriate outcomes.

And the application at work? Most of us can relate the seven Fs to the ways people around us respond to change and threatening situations. Managers can guide people to recognize these common responses and focus on appropriate decision making and outcomes. With coaching and self-awareness an enlightened manager can learn how they and their staff can respond with a more focused approach to their rational choices, rather than be slaves to the “amygdala hijack.”

No comments:

Post a Comment