Danger or Data? Avoid the Trap Upending Operational Stability

What happens we recognize threats or opportunities? Our primitive brains were equipped with two modes—experience and execute. ( PORK )

As a risk management resource, we are witnessing, up close and personal, the havoc and panic inspired by the current political debates over economic sanctions and also the manifestation of significant animal health challenges. People pull the trigger too quickly or, paralyzed by uncertainty, fail to pull the trigger when necessary. Meeting unpredictable production challenges with unpredictable decision-making behaviors is creating anxiety among producers. We want to manage our own responses to volatility so as to not add to the culture of anxiety.

We’ve all experienced what happens when we indulge in urgency-based assessments: broken relationships, risky investments, impulsive hires or acquisitions and stubborn positioning. Economic, relational, industry and other environmental triggers that disrupt our routines and expectations (even in a good way) can trip us into emotional, chemically-inspired “autopilot.” 

Many of us will have a “gut” reaction when surprised—sinking in the pit of the stomach, a wave of facial heat, sweaty palms and racing heart. This is an evolved, primitively-wired response to threats or excitement, shored by a chemical rush of glutamate released by the amygdala in your brain. 

Urgency-based, unpredictable or unanticipated events—especially those that involve potential loss of resources or opportunities, or ones that threaten our physical and emotional security—can trap us into defensive, risky, anxious or rigid thinking patterns that inspire impulsive behaviors.

Our Triggered Brain and the Tiger Around the Bend

The key focus here is “unpredictable,” because, without models, methods and the capacity to manage our urgency-based responses, our primitive programming takes over and gears us for one of two modes: react (fight or flight) to the threat; or seize the opportunity (excite) for fear of missing out. This false and bodily sense of urgency and the impulse to protect, defend or hoard can trigger execution that often upends operational stability. It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurial founders to overextend themselves, their labor force and their operational line of credit for fear of missing an opportunity, or in response to a perceived (but marginally validated) threat.

What happens to our logical, linear selves in situations where we recognize threats or opportunities? Our primitive brains were equipped with two modes—experience and execute. This worked wonderfully when we fled saber-toothed tigers or relied on a glutamate-induced boost for finding food and shelter.

Somewhere along the line, the human brain evolved to incorporate “pause” as part of the process that allows for innovation (fire, engineering shelter, engaging in opportunistic relationships), creativity, collaboration, assessment and empathy. These behaviors steward relationships and resources as a higher function for long-term sustainability and capacity building rather than short-term survivability. That pause part of the brain collects environmental information as objective data rather than threat and allows us to slow down to reflect and interrogate reality. It’s this part of the brain that overrides aggressive, impulsive and instant self-gratifying behaviors in favor of assessment, innovating and opportunistic ones. 

Thoughts and Feelings Are Not Truths

We can’t stop our primitive brain from responding to “danger” when we feel exposed or excited.  Our brain defines truth as our experience of reality; but our experience is not truth. In any situation, especially in an urgency-based one, we serve ourselves and others better by inviting the pause part to mediate, mitigate, manage and contextualize environmental data in a way that allows for a reactionary response but doesn’t indulge it.  

We can change habits and create practices so that the danger response becomes an indicator or invitation for data collection and reflection, rather than a trigger to attack or shut down. With some deliberate practices, we can override our instinct to protect and react and look to those urges as indicators for awareness, curiosity, slowing down and deliberation.

Decision-Making Fatigue and Impulse Control

Another complication characterizing the current urgency-based climate is our brain’s limitation to manage the ceaseless flow of decisions associated with ownership. The human brain has only so much capacity to align intellectual and emotional resources associated with decision-making, and the brain doesn’t distinguish between “Who is going to the grocery store?” and “Do I want to have a million dollar margin call?“ 

At some point, we suffer “decision-making fatigue” (see the book “Willpower”). If you only have a cup of sugar (resources and energy) to allocate to figuring things out, and if you are asking for more when you’re on empty, you are likely to resort to the least common behavioral denominator: paralysis (nothing happens), avoidance (nothing happens) or impulse (get this off my plate so I don’t have to deal with it).

This is the time to use your pause brain and deploy strategies: create protocols for decision-making; prioritize decisions and align them with prime time (before 12 noon); eliminate less relevant decisions or defer them to appropriate stakeholders.

See Part 2: Awareness and Self-Management of Evolved Entrepreneurs