Don’t Go “Caveman” in a Crisis

May 17th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

cavemanResearch has shown that when we experience a crisis, we regress back to our primitive ancestors; we go caveman! We fall back on most deeply ingrained instincts and habits that have served us well for eons by ensuring our survival, namely, by triggering the “fight-or-flight” response. This primal reaction produces intense physiological changes that increase our strength, heighten our senses, and bolster our endurance, all in the name of enabling us to fight more ferociously or run faster and longer. When confronted by a saber-toothed tiger or a rival tribesman, our ancestors had two basic options and we instinctively chose the one that we believed would maximize our chances of survival.

Unfortunately, this ancient reaction that worked hundreds of thousands of years ago in the face of a crisis, won’t work with the crises that we experience in the business world in the 21st century. For example, if you have a conflict with a co-worker, hitting or running from them is not likely a winning strategy that will effectively resolve it. To the contrary, such a response will probably decrease your chances of survival in that jungle known as corporate life. Yet these primitive drives propel us to fall back on the instincts and habits of our forbearers.

In fact, is there any more important situation when you need to have all of your most highly evolved capabilities running on all cylinders than during crises in today’s business world? That’s when you have to respond in ways that go against millions of years of instincts. In a crisis, you need to be at our most evolved best, using your all of the extensive powers that your cerebral cortex can offer you. You must stay calm and rational. You need to be able to think methodically, flexibly, and creatively to discover solutions where the old rules and practices often won’t work. You must reason and problem solve. You need to think through options and make effective decisions.

Your Emotional Reaction to Crisis

In addition to the survival instinct that influences all of us, which emotions you experience and the intensity with which you feel them depends on a variety of factors. Your emotional hard-wiring influences the impact a crisis will have on you. There is clear evidence that temperament, that is, the characteristic ways in which you react emotionally, are innate. Some people are born highly sensitive and, as a result, are more likely to react emotionally to situations quickly and intensely. Conversely, other people are temperamentally stoic and, as a consequence, are less reactive emotionally.

Your past experiences with emotions in general and during crises in particular also influence your immediate reactions. For example, those who have years of experience and a history of success in confronting crises, for example, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or in the boardroom, are more likely to have developed constructive attitudes and effective strategies to react positively to crises. In contrast, those who have had little experience with work-related crises will likely not feel prepared or confident to respond to their challenges. Additionally, others who have struggled in crises will probably have developed negative attitudes and ineffective strategies that interfere with their ability to confront crises.

Your emotional reactions will also be dictated by the degree to which the crisis threatens you directly and immediately. The closer you are to the crisis in terms of impact on you, the more strongly your emotions will be. People who held aggressive investment portfolios, for example, were more likely to respond strongly to the Great Recession than those who had conservative portfolios.

The resources you have available will also contribute to the quality and quantity of your emotional reaction to a crisis. Whether in the form of experience, social support, money, or materials, the more resources you have, the less threatened you will feel in reaction to a crisis. These resources increase people’s confidence in their capabilities to manage and overcome the crisis. For example, the US Airways captain Chesley Sullenberger, who piloted the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing of a passenger jet on the Hudson river, used his years of experience and extensive flying skills to remain calm and save the lives of 150 passengers and crew. In contrast, lacking those resources, the passengers themselves were, presumably, terrified when they realized that they were going to crash into the water.

Finally, the amount of control that you have in response to a crisis will influence how much it affects you emotionally. Generally speaking, the more control you feel over a crisis, the less intense your emotions will be and the less they will interfere with your ability to respond positively to the crisis. Returning to the example of Captain Sullenberger, his well-trained and frequently affirmed skilled sets instilled in him the belief that the crisis was within his control, enabling him to stay focused and make rapid—and correct—decisions.

The next issue of Prime Business Alert! will explore the “crisis emotional chain,” which is comprised of four emotions that interfere with your ability to respond positively in a crisis.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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