Survival of the Bravest
Across the globe, companies are clamping down. They are cutting costs, they are applying new restrictions, they are making broad sweeping decisions through policy. All to preserve what they can for the very unknown future. This is entirely understandable. I sat for weeks on end with my previous executive team doing contingency planning to keep the company alive for so many years, no matter what. All we cared about was surviving.
We are in a crisis, there is no other way to put it. As far as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs go, the base of the pyramid — the most basic human needs — are under attack. What is tricky here, of course, is in the nuance.
One of the most maddening things about the human brain is that physical and psychological threats are not differentiated in the mind. That’s why your adrenaline kicks up when an angry client calls, and why you sweat when you’re nervous. You have physiological reactions to psychological events. What makes our current situation extremely difficult is we are currently facing both physiological and psychological concerns.
What does the brain do when it feels threatened? It goes into survival mode. It does this by triggering the amygdala. The amygdala (your fear center) actually impairs your prefrontal cortex (your critical thinking brain) making it very difficult to make rational and clear decisions. When this happens, your attention narrows so extremely that it traps you into one perspective. This begs the question, “When have you ever solved a complex problem with just one perspective?” and “If fear leads to such poor decision making, how do we counter it?”
Everyone is afraid right now on various levels. And what is the most basic response to fear? Control. Control is how your body and brain find safety, whether real or perceived. We are on lockdown to control coronavirus, we are cutting down on spending to control company runways, and we are making quick decisions to control our anxiety and the unknown.
Your brain, rightfully so, is telling you, “The only thing that matters right now is survival.” When your brain is blanketed under the veil of survival it’s not thinking long term. It’s not thinking about consequences, and it’s not thinking about collateral damage. While your fears are valid, they most likely won’t help you make healthy decisions. What if the decisions you are making now cause more harm than good in the long run? What if you lose your company because you were just trying to protect it? For the sake of your company, I am here to challenge your thinking, your survival instincts, and especially your amygdala.
2 months after first contracting COVID, I am still recovering. My friends have since asked me, “During your intense bouts of breathing issues due to COVID, how did you know it wasn’t anxiety vs the virus? And how did you get through it?” These are very fair questions, and it was only in the most intense moments of the virus that I had to find clarity. I was alone in my apartment, I was disoriented and I was having serious trouble breathing. Three times, I was moments away from calling 911. Did I have anxiety? Of course. Was it driving the inability to breathe? No. How did I figure out what caused it?
I had to stay calm enough to sift through all the information that was being provided to me.
I had to ask myself questions I had never had to ask: Can I breathe all the way in? Yes. Can I move? Yes. Is it getting harder to get oxygen? Yes. Can I talk? No. Am I in grave danger? I don’t think so. This last answer could not come from my mind. Instead, my body had to tell me what was going on. I had to respond to my environment. Somewhere, deep down inside, I trusted that I was safe.
While this is an extreme example, it is apt for this time. Because this critical moment of mine is being played out, at scale, on the world stage. The question in everybody’s mind is, “How much trouble am I in?” So what are you suggesting here Kate? That we make life or death decisions based on how we feel? No. (Unless absolutely necessary). I am challenging you to look more carefully at your fear, at your threats, and discern what is real (physical) and what is perceived (psychological). To sit with extreme uncertainty longer than you want to in order to find the possibilities, not just the restrictions. I am asking you to be brave.
What is the difference?
Physical threats are factual and known. Is there a pandemic? Yes. Are parts of the population at a higher risk of dying? Yes. Is it highly contagious? Yes. Do doctors have a cure yet? No.
Psychological threats are the stories we create from fear. We must take quick and decisive action to keep control of the company. We must scale back on innovation to survive. While our company is doing well we should cut our marketing team to preserve even more cash, just in case.
People and companies tend to conflate these two types of threats and bucket them nicely under “safety.” I have worked at a company where some of the decisions they made, if wrong, would kill thousands of people. Because they truly did deal with life and death, safety was of the utmost importance. But they also used safety to shut down conversations, to shy away from calculated risk, and to extinguish creativity entirely. Safety was their sword and their shield. They hid behind it under the guise of pride and purpose. Their binary view of safety was crushing them and nothing, as we know, is ever just black and white. So I challenged them to not back down from the grey area but to walk through it with a fine-tooth comb to tease out the critical from the flexible. While clinging tightly to safety might feel good to your primal brain it has strong ramifications down the line. Thus, I caution you to be careful of the policies you put in place now under the veil of protecting everyone and everything. While your intentions are good, I would urge you to think through the indirect consequences of your decisions.
How: The power of good questions
How did I get calm enough to figure out what was happening in my body? I asked myself questions. It was in asking questions that my brain moved from my amygdala to my prefrontal cortex. Asking questions is one of the quickest ways to re-engage your critical thinking and relax your amygdala.
I suggest you sit down and make a list. Write down every concern you have about your company. Once you are done, go through each fear or concern and ask yourself, “Are these facts or stories?” When you have your list of stories isolated, start asking positively framed questions, like: What else is possible here? What are we missing? Who on our teams can we leverage? What creative options are hidden? What is the opportunity here? Who can we call? How do we leverage our strengths? What is everyone else not doing? If we weren’t scared, how would we act?
Answer these questions alone first and then with your teams. Generate new ideas, crazy ideas, things that might just change the direction of the company. Spin up cross-functional teams who are passionate and have energy around solving these issues. Experiment, iterate, learn and apply.
It will be the bold and the brave that can sift carefully between the shifting sands of our current environment. This isn’t easy, thriving never is. By closing up and clamping down, you might survive, but you might also cut off the talent, the creativity, the very life force that makes up your company. If your amygdala is your fear, then your prefrontal cortex is your bravery. Every day there is a dance between the two, but you ultimately decide which will lead. The opportunity is always there, but are you brave enough to see it?