Fight, Flight, and Futures Thinking: Getting Control of Organizational Panic

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

Scuba divers by Flickr user Tim Snell CC BY-ND 2.0

In an article on “accounting for adrenalin” in situations of self-defence, US Air Marshal M. Guthrie describes the challenges of making swift and effective decisions under extreme stress. Often in such situations, our own instincts seem to act against us.

Guthrie gives the example of scuba divers who drown despite having full oxygen tanks; in a moment of crisis, the amygdala reacted by driving them to clear their airways, spitting out their breathing tube despite the diver being consciously aware that they were underwater.

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions,” Guthrie writes. “And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom[.]”

Organizations aren’t precisely like organisms, and the way we think when we work collectively isn’t quite like the dramatic individual encounters which trigger our adrenal glands. Often an organizational crisis is measured in hours, days, or weeks, rather than seconds and minutes. It will involve discussion, policy, and procedure, with a pace and structure quite different from the amygdala prompting an unreasoned – and possibly counterproductive – survival response.

Still, organizations can go into a panic just as much as individuals can, and when they do so, they may start making harmful or counterproductive decisions. Significant among the situations which trigger such panic are “feral futures“. In these situations, we think we have tamed the environment we are operating in, but misunderstand what is going on, and our action based on false premises or data in fact makes things gravely worse.

Guthrie writes that, “Training then, to me, is all about trying to give the amygdala better choices. Because you won’t consciously be deciding much on ‘that day.’ Or maybe it’s about getting your body so used to adrenal stress that you can actually think, somewhat, during pauses in the action. Or more likely a combination of the two. End of the day, training isn’t about what most people think it is.”

But what does this mean when we move from the individual amygdala to the collective work of institutions, companies, and communities?

Many organisations will be suffering a kind of adrenal anxiety right now, as 2020’s ongoing turbulence and uncertainties strike from various angles of attack. Under great pressure of time and resources, institutions and communities of all kinds are being expected to make high-stakes decisions with minimal clarity as to the context and consequences of those decisions.

Last year, in an informal video series called “Yoga for Futurists“, I started to sketch out some quick and dirty methods for identifying your strategic blindspots and moving swiftly towards a judgment about what you should do next.

Activities like these aren’t full scale foresight projects or strategy workshops, but shorter prompts for reflection on what might await us, where our blindspots currently lie, and how to move from analysis to action.

Such exercises matter precisely because they force us to slow down, attend more closely to the situation we find ourselves in, and make better informed decisions about what to do next.

The aim is to get you out of the institutional freeze-fight-flight mode. We avoid spitting out the scuba mouthpiece and cutting off our air supply because we have managed to steady our nerves and correct our panicked perception of the situation. We rehearse for the crises which might disturb us, so that if a situation occurs which triggers a “fight or flight” response, we have prepared contingency responses that have become second nature, overriding counterproductive instincts in order to “give the amygdala better choices”.

Instructor with a trainee diver rehearsing for an incident with his air supply, via Wikimedia Commons

Ramírez and Ravetz, who defined “feral futures”, suggest an approach to such situations which draws on the insights of Zen philosophy.

They write that “Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being […] Thus an aim of Zen is to help an individual go beyond ordinary attachments and to come to some sort of Enlightenment. […] Zen is unique in its approach; not relying on the gradual development of the enlightened consciousness, but on something else – a sort of ‘spiritual shock therapy’ or revelation, where the individual lets go of, surrenders, or transcends their comforting but imprisoning beliefs in the structures that maintain their ordinary existence.”

This notion of the “spiritual shock” resonates with the idea that people who will face high-stakes threats ought to prepare by getting used to stress and unlearning some of their instinctive responses. (George Burt and Anup Karath Nair have reflected elsewhere on the strategic importance of unlearning rigid conventional thinking when facing an uncertain future).

Ramírez and Ravetz argue that in foresight work, “forcing people to work through a scenario that […] experienced managers consider implausible or threatening […] does indeed challenge their common sense”. They point to the work of the famed 20th century scenario planner Pierre Wack and his belief that “scenarios could help people bypass the defences whereby early warnings are rejected or even kept out of consciousness.”

Such defences are analogous to the amygdala’s untrained response: I am experiencing breathing difficulty, therefore I must spit out this mouthpiece because it obstructs my airway. The diver must unlearn this response and train themselves to manage the discomforts and unusualness of operating at depth.

Ramírez and Ravetz argue that a Zen-like mindfulness will serve organisations better in feral futures, when conventional or habitual responses exacerbate a situation, “[b]ecause attending to feral futures means letting go of the labels and distinctions that become attached to […] futures we are accustomed to dealing with – predictable futures and unpredictable futures, and especially desirable and undesirable prospects.”

Interestingly, given the metaphor of adrenalin and the amygdala, they note that “[a]s soon as we make such distinctions [based on the likelihood or desirability of a given future] our bodies respond, our emotions are engaged, and we are getting ready to welcome or deny.” What else is this but the organisational, strategic equivalent of “fight or flight”?

Ensō, a Zen symbol, by Kanjuro Shibata XX CC BY-SA 3.0

Ramírez and Ravetz suggest that a more mindful response, which cools the effect of institutional “adrenalin”, “involves attending to the peripheral and the subtle, to that which has been taken for granted (like breath or gravity), while letting go of a priori categories and established definitions. But it does not mean doing nothing. In Zen one lets go, and one acts. Feral futures engaged with a Zen approach are interacted with. They are not simply observed or listened to or felt or smelt, welcomed or feared; they are an Other with whom to engage – perhaps experimentally, perhaps tentatively, but with an open mind and awareness.”

The shocks and upsets of 2020 so far have presented organizations and communities with enormous challenges. Situations that seemed tame and comfortable – or at least manageable and predictable – have stopped making sense. Events have blindsided us, and then doubly confounded us when, in hindsight, we feel we should have seen them coming.

Of course our first priority as leaders in organizations and communities must be our immediate survival, but given that even dramatic organizational challenges tend to take place rather more slowly than the seconds or minutes that an Air Marshal or scuba diver might have, we can find the time to unlearn our instinctual response and attend more thoughtfully to our immediate situation.

Tools such as “Draw Your Day“, which breaks down daily routines during the pandemic, or the “Arrows of Time” activity, which was adapted from the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach and also forms the basis of “Yoga for Futurists“, are swift enough to conduct in a coffee break, but can also be used to underpin more sophisticated and lengthy examination of the questions “What is going on?” and “What should we do next?”

During the heat of the initial COVID-19 response, it may have felt as if there wasn’t time to take even a short break to consider what might await us further down the track, but this is an effect of being in “freeze-fight-flght” mode. Charging ahead without time to reflect is like being the driver who doesn’t pull over to refuel their vehicle because they’re in too much of a hurry – and ends up running out of gas.

We may get through an immediate crisis by brute instinct and force of will, like an untrained person who escapes a violent situation thanks to sheer good luck and adrenalin, but it is also possible that such wild and unconsidered movements will lead us to share the fate of the diver who spits out their own breathing tube.

The deeper and more sustained our practice of strategic “meditation”, the more willing we are to induce “spiritual shock” by thinking the unthinkable, the better prepared we should be for turbulence, uncertainty, and the collapse of previous norms. However, even small amounts of attention to the ways we react to or anticipate organizational challenges, with a focus on retraining ourselves to cope with stress, could yield benefits.

As soon as there is any capacity to take a more reflective stance on the future, we should seize the opportunity to do so. Spending time in meditation on what might happen next should become a matter of organizational routine, just as rescue workers, law enforcement officials, and divers are expected to regularly rehearse for the threatening situations they face as they go about their business.

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