Our primitive brains, which have yet to catch up with the challenges of business life in the 21st century, will likely cause you to feel four emotions when faced with a crisis in your work, what I call the caveman crisis chain: fear, frustration, anger, and despair.
As I noted in the last issue of Prime Business Alert!, which emotions you experience and the intensity with which you feel them depend on a variety of factors including your innate temperament, your past experiences with emotions in general and crises in particular, the degree to which the crisis threatens you directly, the resources you have available to respond to the crisis, and amount of control you have over the crisis.
The caveman crisis chain is all-encompassing, so that it impacts us physically, psychologically, and cognitively. And one thing is certain: this reaction can’t be stopped; 300 million years of instinct can’t be readily undone. Rather the best you can hope for is to understand your temperament and develop tools that will prevent caveman crisis chain from gaining control of you during a time of crisis when a calm heart and a cool head are necessary for your survival. Your goal is to limit the intensity and duration of this reaction when faced with a crisis, so that your more highly evolved capabilities, namely, those associated with your cerebral cortex, can assert themselves and guide you toward a solution to the crisis at hand.
There is no more fundamental emotion than fear. Its singular purpose is to alert you to proximal threats to your survival. Fear is instantaneous by its very nature and its value to your survival; if fear didn’t arise immediately, the chances are you wouldn’t react quickly enough to avert the threat and survive. Moreover, fear can be motivating (it impels you to either fight with ferocity or flee rapidly) or it can be paralyzing (think deer in the headlights).
Unfortunately, this fear reaction, that was so effective in ensuring our survival in primitive times, is much less effective in the face of many of the crises that we face today. Our primal experience of fear as an instigator of immediate action is, most often, more destructive than constructive in the face of the complex crises these days. Where swift and instinctive reactions once served us well, they now may cause you to act in ways that are rash and ill advised. The negativity and panic that have been fear’s constant companions for eons now prevent you from reasoned thought, sound problem solving, and cogent decision making, all essential skills to effectively overcome today’s crises.
Once the instinctive efforts triggered by fear prove fruitless, the next link in the caveman crisis chain, frustration, takes over. We’ve all experienced the feeling of frustration when we feel our efforts in a crisis are not producing the results we want: we feel stuck, we get stressed, and we feel helpless. The best way we can describe the feeling is: AAARRGGHH!! It is a truly infuriating feeling!
But what is frustration precisely and what causes it? Simply put, frustration arises when the path toward your goal is blocked (think of a crisis as a massive obstacle in that path). Most people think of frustration as a bad emotion, but it is actually more complex than that. The fact is that frustration, like fear, is hard wired into us and also serves to help us survive. Frustration starts as a good emotion because when we get frustrated, we are motivated to remove the obstacle that is blocking our path toward our goals. We try harder and that extra effort often results in clearing the path enabling us to continue to pursue our goals.
Let’s go back to early humans. A caveman needs to hunt and kill game for his cave family. If he is one of the unlucky cavemen in whom the frustration instinct didn’t evolve, this caveman would throw his spear at his prey a few times and, if he missed, he would give up and go home. His family would starve, die, and wouldn’t pass their genes on to future generations. In contrast, if another caveman was fortunate enough to have the frustration instinct, he might miss his target a few times, get frustrated, and redouble his efforts until he killed some game. The happy ending? He feeds his family and they survive and strengthen the human gene pool.
If only life were as simple today. Yes, in the face of a crisis, frustration can start out as a helpful emotion, causing you to intensify your efforts to overcome the crisis. At the same time, crises these days have attributes that make the frustration that worked so well in primitive times largely ineffective. Because of the magnitude and the uncontrollable, distant, delayed, indirect, lingering, and amorphous nature of many crises these days, our efforts to remove the obstacle in our path (i.e., the cause of the crisis) will have little effect on resolving the crisis and, as a result, will only cause more frustration. If, despite your best efforts, you can’t overcome those roadblocks that the crisis has presented to you, frustration can become a destructive emotion in which you continue to do the same thing more and harder. In doing so, you violate Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting different results.
If your frustration that comes from being ineffectual in response to the crisis isn’t dealt with quickly and effectively, it can shift to the next link the caveman crisis chain: anger. Most people also believe that anger is a bad emotion, but, like frustration, it too has both positive and negative sides. Anger starts out as being helpful because it too is motivating. Let’s return to our primitive roots. Anger when threatened was hard wired into us, the purpose of which was to cause us to fight ferociously and overcome the source of the threat. Even today, anger causes us to want to go after the thing that is causing us anger. Unfortunately, for most crises these days, anger swiftly becomes a harmful emotion because there is usually nothing to confront directly nor does physically (or even verbally) attacking the source prove to be much help in resolving the crisis.
Moreover, anger produces a physiology and psychology that, though effective for our ancestors, is largely counterproductive when facing crises today. Physically, we become stressed and infused with adrenaline at a time when we need to calm and relaxed. Psychologically, our thinking tends to become clouded, so our ability to analyze, interpret, problem solve, and make good decisions diminishes, all essential processes necessary to effectively confront crises these days. Additionally, our focus narrows and becomes rigid when we need our attention to be broad and flexible.
If you’re not able to overcome the crisis with which you are confronted by this point, your emotions may shift to the final stage of the caveman crisis chain; you experience despair. You have tried and tried and tried and still can’t solve the crisis, so the natural thing to do is quit. What’s the point of continuing to try if nothing you do is working? For both our primitive ancestors and we modern-day humans, despair is not a good emotion when faced with a crisis. For our forbearers, despair led to surrender which was usually followed closely by death. Though not quite so tragically final these days, despair also leads to giving up and the loss of any opportunity to overcome the challenges of the today’s crises.
At the heart of despair is a sense of futility or defeat and a loss of hope. Despair is characterized by physiological and psychological changes that are in sharp contrast to those experienced with fear, frustration, and anger. Despair produces physical changes associated with surrender including a depressed mood, significantly lower physiological activity (e.g., heart rate, respiration, blood flow) and feelings of lethargy. Psychological and cognitive shifts include a dramatic decline in motivation, confidence, and focus and a diminished capacity for deliberate thinking, rigorous analysis, thoughtful judgment, and scrupulous decision making. In other words, everything that mobilizes you for action disappears, guaranteeing that you will fall prey to whatever a crisis presents you with.
My work with both senior management and world-class athletes indicates that if you move along the caveman crisis chain from fear and frustration to anger and despair, the crisis will likely consume you or, at the very least, significantly slow your constructive reaction to the crisis. Anger will cause you to react in ineffective and potentially self-destructive ways to the crisis. In turn, despair will ensure no response to the crisis at all.
Moreover, if you experience the caveman crisis chain on a regular basis, sliding repeatedly past fear and frustration into anger and despair, you will likely ingrain this negative emotional reaction and it will become your dominant response when faced with a crisis. With each journey along the caveman crisis chain, you will come to believe that your actions have little effect and you will progressively lose confidence in your ability to overcome crises.