Earlier in this lesson, we looked at how a lack of awareness about the mental model we use to make sense of incoming data can lead to 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 the brain’s anatomy, functions to keep us safe and alive. This part of the brain developed when we spent most of our time running away from wild animals who were trying to eat us. Its job is to scan the horizon and be on constant lookout for danger.
When our amygdala perceives imminent danger, it throws us into a threat state, and it does this in less than a second (mighty useful when there are wild animals on your tail). This process floods our bodies with stress hormones that guide us to fight, freeze, or flee in response to the perceived threat. Threats that trigger this process include physical threats and egoic threats, whether objectively real or not.
When the amygdala is triggered, our ability to listen is affected, our attention is narrowed, our critical thinking skills are impaired, and our working memory is limited. In this state, our resources are instead concentrated on listening for information that helps us answer the core questions at the root of human existence:
- Do I need to protect myself?
- Am I going to be excluded?
- Am I valued/is my existence meaningful?
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 the data through a lens of fear that’s capable of warping the answers we find to these fundamental questions. The key to working with this dynamic isn’t to deny that each of us comes pre-loaded with these primal drives; 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 fear that our needs for safety, approval, or belonging will not be met — if we aren’t skilled at working with our reactions — the amygdala takes over as the part of the brain that will deal with the situation. “The higher the level of perceived threat, the more the brain defaults away from creatively responding to the present” and instead trends toward responding using “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.
In your professional life, a fight response to a typical workplace interaction could look like:
- 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)
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 the form of:
- 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 some of these fight, flight, or freeze responses resemble the common blind spot behaviors you learned about in Lesson 2 . Recall that fear and discomfort can have a lot to do with why we have those blind spots in the first place.
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 over-indexing on self-protection in an effort to perform its original life-preserving, safety-seeking purpose.