We all go through this sorting exercise, all the time. It’s part of being human. And sometimes, it’s useful and appropriate, allowing us to move through life efficiently. It’s how we make sense of enormous quantities of data, after all. But, unchecked, this sorting process can lead to significant personal and organizational dysfunction.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One reason is our basic lack of awareness about the mental frameworks we use to make sense of things. The mental framework itself isn’t problematic; our lack of awareness about it and how it works on us and others is where we get into trouble. Another reason the ladder of inference can get us into trouble is that the process is often fueled by parts of us that shouldn’t be allowed in the driver’s seat. The amygdala is one of those parts.
The amygdala, one of the earliest-to-develop elements of our brain, functions to keep us safe and alive. Its job is to constantly scan the horizon on the lookout for danger. This part of the brain developed back when we spent most of our time running away from wild animals who were trying to eat us.
When it perceives an imminent threat, the amygdala reacts in less than a second (mighty useful when there are wild animals on your tail). It floods our bodies with stress hormones that guide us to fight, flee, or freeze, all wound up in response to perceived threats. This includes physical threats and egoic threats, real or not.
When the amygdala is triggered, our ability to listen is affected. In this state, we listen on high alert for answers to the core questions at the root of human existence:
- Do I need to protect myself?
- Am I being excluded?
- Am I valued and appreciated?
These core questions underlie our desire to know that our needs for safety, inclusion, predictability, connection, and status will be met. When the amygdala runs wild, we apply filters that interpret incoming data through a lens of fear that’s looking for answers to these basic human questions. The key to working with this basic human instinct isn’t to deny that each of us comes pre-loaded with these primal instincts; instead, we want to understand how these instincts work on us and the people around us so that we can respond skillfully.
Let’s bring our focus back to what this might look like at work: in the face of a belief that our needs for safety, approval, or belonging will not be met, if we aren’t skilled at working with our reactions, the amygdala tells us which part of the brain should deal with the situation. “The higher the level of perceived threat, the more the brain defaults away from creatively responding to the present and toward habitual responses from the past or at worst, base level fight, flight and freeze,” says Janet Crawford, founder and CEO of Cascadance, a company specializing in aligning business and biology for organizational excellence.
Which course we take in response to perceived threat depends a lot on the individual and the particular circumstances in question. Here are a few possibilities.
A fight response at work might take shape as:
- Making it personal
- Undermining an idea or its proponent
- Being overly critical or non-constructive in meetings (e.g.,“yes, but…” or taking on the Critic persona)
At work, a flight response might look like:
- Avoiding the project
- Distracting self or others by looking at a device in a meeting
- Not making time for the work or the person
- Not attending the meetings
- Not responding to communications
- Failing to deliver
A freeze response can take shape as:
- Resisting change or involvement
- Not engaging or keeping the conversation at the wrong altitude
- Withholding information or action
- Reacting like a “deer in the headlights”
- Finding self unable to come up with answers or coherent sentences
Notice that many of these responses are forms of hiding that you learned about in Week 2 (Self-Awareness — How Are you Showing Up?).
Nowadays, we are not in danger of being eaten by wild animals (most of the time, anyway). But that doesn’t stop the amygdala from performing its original purpose. The amygdala over-indexes on self-protection, and it doesn’t exactly understand today’s (relatively) safe environment.