Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Blog Post Breakthrough Results

Most of us have heard of the fight or flight response, also known as the Amygdala Response. If you have, it’s the survival mechanism produced by the brain to keep us alive through the centuries, and what’s interesting about it is where in the brain the response comes from. The amygdala, researchers and psychologists believe, is the oldest parts of the brain, and have even referred to it as the Lizard Brain. A part of the limbic system, it was designed to scan for imminent danger and threats to our physical survival and react—hence the term: fight or flight.

While wild beasts are no longer posing an imminent danger to our survival, in today’s work environment, we are still fighting on a daily basis to survive, only we are not trying to survive physical threats to our well-being. Instead, we are trying to survive perceived threats, which for us look a lot like incidents or situations where we under-preform, lose face, look bad, deliver bad news, or fail to deliver promised results.

Human survival has evolved (or should we say devolved) into who can sway the greatest numbers of people to one’s point of view as THE RIGHT point of view. When in survival mode, even the most reliable high-performers will often take actions to remove themselves from harm’s way, disappointing others, or inviting some level of risk.

The mechanistic choices are:

Fight – stand our ground and explain, convince, coerce, incent, threaten, entice with reward, or punish with retribution

Flight – count our losses and bow out gracefully, or proclaim defeat, or come up with a convenient “prior commitment” to attend to. Simply said, it can come down to choosing one’s battles and running, tail between legs, or walking away proudly, knowing a bigger and more worthy battle awaits. But we still flee.

Freeze – to become incapacitated or paralyzed, unable to act, or even think of options or ways to either fight or take flight. Time seems to stop, we lose all effectiveness, and performance (which is a function of action) ceases. Instead of digging one’s heels in, or high-tailing it, another possible survival mechanism is to stop. Just stop. What will rise to the surface like a behemoth are our feelings, worries, and concerns, accompanied by the worst-case scenario “what if’s”.

So, what do we do with all of this and how do we inspire our people and ourselves beyond fight, flight, or freeze?

  • Number one, be aware of this human phenomenon – we’ve been wired this way for centuries and it permeates all cultures, sizes, and shapes of human beings.
  • Evaluate the situation for possible actions above and beyond those designed for our survival.
  • Create a choice. What’s often missing is identifying the underlying commitment that would support and foster a worthy, even risky course of action.
  • Inspire your people to go beyond flight, flight, or freeze and encourage them to create a possibility that is bigger, more compelling, and will produce greater results than surviving. The worst that can happen is you fail, and remember, each failure brings you closer to success.

By reading this I hope you can see that thinking and acting from a place of survival has a set of results that you could produce at work. But by acknowledging that it’s there, and thinking and acting from a different place, like a new possibility, gives you access to a completely new set of results.