The ‘Fight or Flight’ response may save our lives on the plains of Africa, but it’s not as helpful in the boardroom. Leadership expert, Kevin Parker explains what fuels our Fight or Flight response and provides some top tips for controlling it using the Golden Rule of Triggers.
Remember the last time you pushed the send button for an email and then instantly regretted it, or snapped at someone in a moment of frustration?
It’s easy to recall all we do wrong in our lives — eat and drink too much, exercise and sleep too little, buy things we don’t need, judge others too quickly, etc.
We know and are capable of better. So why exactly do we make so many short-sighted, destructive choices? Most of us don’t realise that we each have at least two very distinct selves. They don’t know very much about one another. If you doubt this is so, think about what you’re like at your best, and what you’re like at your worst. Which one is the real you? The answer, of course, is both – two selves – both you.
The Performance Zone
Under ordinary circumstances, our parasympathetic (zombie) nervous system and our prefrontal cortex (the thinking bit) are running the show. We’re capable of thinking clearly, calmly and logically. This is often called the ‘Performance Zone’. It’s here that we’re capable of operating at our best.
The Survival Zone
In the face of a perceived threat, however, our sympathetic (trigger) nervous system and amygdala (emotional memory bit) take over and our second self steps up. A flood of stress hormones is released. Our pre-frontal cortex shuts down; we become narrow and more myopic in our vision, and we react more primitively and instinctively.
The physiology of fight or flight mobilises us to attack, or run like hell.
Think of this as the ‘Survival Zone’. It’s a great place to be if there’s a lion coming at you. It isn’t great in situations where thinking is an asset. The problem is that our bodies respond to any perceived threat – say, a critical comment from a colleague or a boss – by fuelling the fight or flight response. We lose our capacity for rationality and reflectiveness, and we mostly don’t realise we’ve lost it.
What were you thinking?
Consider a classic question you’ve surely asked someone — or been asked yourself: “What were you thinking when you did that?” More often than not, you weren’t thinking anything at all. You were just reacting.
Once stress hormones stop circulating through your body, the capacity to think logically returns. But that doesn’t mean we take responsibility for our bad behaviours. Instead, many of us use our prefrontal cortex to rationalise what we’ve just done without thinking. We seek to justify, or minimise, or deny our responsibility for behaviours that were, in fact, hurtful and destructive to others. We misuse the gift of our cognition.
So what’s the antidote to behaving reactively when we feel under threat?
Firstly become more aware of when your emotions begin to turn negative. That may mean noticing your heart beating faster, or tightness in your chest, jaw, or forehead.
The next step, when you sense you’re getting frustrated or anxious, is to apply ‘The Golden Rule of Triggers’. It’s very simple:
Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.
Compulsions are not choices, and they rarely lead to positive outcomes.
The moment you feel yourself moving into the ‘Survival Zone’, label it: “Ah, there I go”. Take a deep breath. Inhale through your nose to a count of 3, and exhale slowly to a count of six. That will quiet your body. Finally, feel your feet, to get out of your head and ground yourself in the reality of the present moment.
You’ve just bought time. Now you should be able to ask yourself “How would I behave here at my best?” and make a conscious choice about how to respond.
Kevin is a leading consultant, coach, mediator, facilitator and leads and designs leadership programmes. He is a Fellow of The Royal Society Of Arts and has been listed in the ‘Who’s Who of Britain’s Business Elite’.
He has a wealth of experience to bring to client issues as a result of working with some of the world’s best organisations, and also leading executives on best practice tours to a wide range of world-class companies in Japan, the USA, and Europe. He has written and contributed to a number of books and his latest book is called ‘Purple Monkeys! – A Leaders Practical Guide to Unleashing the Power Of Questions To Achieve Great Results’.