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.”

29569296885_fdc992d3df_c
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. Read more