Fight or Flight

For over 15 years I’ve plied my trade in transformation communications, helping companies and leaders bring organizations through periods of massive change. The years of strategy execution, message platforms, live communications and toolkits all add up to one core ambition: ensuring that all who are impacted by change know what’s happening, why it’s happening and where they land when all is said and done.

Great construct. Uneven outcomes.

Why? Because humans are predictably unpredictable. We’re essentially emotional creatures and anytime the ground beneath us shakes we get nervous. We are loaded with caveman impulses, still lurking long after we evolved from environments glutted with hungry beasts and Game of Thrones style foes. What we call modern day stress is fueled, in part, by our cerebral poles consisting of future risk and mitigation planning, and hyper-sensitivity to perceived threats. As Dr. Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, stated in New York Times, “…we essentially drive ourselves nuts worrying about things because we have too much time and don’t have many real threats on our survival, so fear gets expressed in these really strange, maladaptive ways.”

Blame it on the amygdala.

This is where desired change outcomes crash against reality, the area where leadership makes or breaks success. It has to do with addressing and over riding fear. The most exquisitely planned-for transformation risks still contain an element of the unknown. The unknown, coupled with risk, generates fear. The paradox of fear, notes Brown University Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Kristy Dalrymple, in the above mentioned NYT article, is that “The more you try to suppress fear, either by ignoring it or doing something else to displace it, the more you will actually experience it.” I’ve come appreciate that the most powerful phrase a leader can utter during a period of change is “I don’t know.” Highly counterintuitive, it is honest and real, a critical building block of trust.

I’ve worked with many leaders who are deeply concerned with the impact their decisions have on others. They wrestle with being fair and respectful as change is unfolding, troubled by the human response they played a hand in unleashing. Yet they reflexively bolster themselves through the culturally sanctioned belief that competence equals unwavering strength. Every question needs a ready-made answer, every uncomfortable response must be met with surety. Anything less is unacceptable, an indication of being unfit for the role. Their humanity is tempered.

The leaders I’ve seen lead change well, and there have been a few, are those who possess and display supple courage. Clear of mind and of voice, these leaders acknowledge the risks and the human impact, and move their organizations ahead with foresight. They understand change is a process that advances in loops, not straight lines, and they share the experience of the group while remaining slightly above it. In essence, they don’t work around reality, they work through it. And in doing so, such smart leaders quiet the prehistoric impulse long enough to unlock the hopeful side of change.













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