The Human Response to VUCA.
The Human Response to VUCA is natural and instinctive. It is a stress response to threatening situations, the “fight or flight response.” Although our human brain has evolved over time, our “monkey brain”, the brain which enabled our bodies to draw upon extraordinary energy to save us from a Sabre Tooth, is still alive and well. A VUCA environment will cause us stress, stress and Fear are seen by our brain as threatening which in turn will trigger our monkey brain.
Our monkey brain is not well developed for our modern world because it lacks the subtlety required to contextualise and rationalise our thoughts. Our response might, therefore, be inappropriate or even damaging:
- Line managers may make inappropriate and costly decisions;
- people who usually work well together might start to fall out with one another;
- Suppliers could make decisions which have a negative impact on your business;
- Funding partners might wish to reduce their exposure.
Everyone is going to encounter some stressful or dangerous situation in their lifetime. Fortunately, our body has a natural, built-in stress response to threatening situations called the “fight or flight response.” Understanding our body’s natural response to threat and danger can help us better understand the Human reaction to emotional or threatening behaviour and so our Capacity for Leadership.
The difference between anxiety and Fear
Before we discuss what happens in the fight or flight syndrome, it is important to first appreciate the difference between Fear and stress or anxiety.
Fear is the emotion you experience when you are actually in a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a scary, stressful, or threatening situation. You may also experience anxiety when you think about something stressful or dangerous that could happen to you. Other words for anxiety or stress are “dread” or “apprehensiveness.”
The difference between anxiety and fear can be illustrated this way nicely. Think about the last time you went on a roller coaster. Anxiety is what you felt when you were in the queue looking at the hills, steep drops, and loops, as well as hearing the screams of other riders. You also likely felt anxiety when on the roller coaster as you got closer to the top of the first hill. Fear is what you experienced as you went over the peak of the hill and started your fall down the first hill.
Anxiety and Fear can be helpful
Anxiety and Fear caused by the Human response to VUCA can have beneficial responses. The human race may not even exist if it were not for these hard-wired responses to danger and threat. Anxiety and Fear provide us with information. That is, they tell us when danger is present, and they prepare us to act.
When you are in a stressful or dangerous situation and experience Fear and anxiety, your body goes through a number of changes:
The Heart and lungs
All of these changes are part of the fight or flight syndrome. As the name implies, these changes are preparing you for immediate action. They are preparing you to flee, freeze (kind of like a deer does when caught in someone’s headlights), or to fight.
All of these are adaptive bodily responses essentially designed to keep us alive, and because these responses are important to our survival, they occur quickly and without thought. They are automatic.
The downside to this response
It would be great if the Human response to VUCA, anxiety and fear only occurred in situations where we were in immediate danger. Unfortunately, it does not always work this way.
For example, many people have fear and anxiety when speaking in front of other people. You may also have fear and anxiety when meeting someone new. A person with PTSD may experience fear and anxiety when they go out into crowded or cramped places, such as a supermarket or the tube.
These situations are not dangerous in the sense that they don’t threaten our survival. So, why might we have fear and anxiety in these situations?
We have fear and anxiety in these situations because of the way we evaluate these situations. Our body cannot always tell the difference between real and imagined threat. Therefore, when we interpret a situation as threatening, our body is going to respond as though that situation is dangerous and threatening, even if it isn’t in actuality.
Take action before VUCA undermines your business
Have you noticed how many leaders are sitting on the fence right now, in one shape or another, waiting to see what happens before they step up? They are quite happy taking shots at those that are attempting to lead, but when it comes to leading themselves they are sat on the fence waiting for others to fail, I guess in the hope that they can come out on top as the hero.
There is no value in sitting back and waiting to see what happens, waiting for more information, following the crowd. If you are in a leadership role it’s time to step forward and take charge. VUCA will undermine your business faster than anything over your horizon, as your people lose their natural sense of direction. VUCA causes fear and fear triggers our fight or flight response.
Trevor Parker is a Strategic Executive Coach and Mentor to private clients trying to excel in a world of increasing competition, pressure, negativity and stress. Positioned as one of Yorkshire Business Insider’s power 100 and a fellow of the Institute of the motor industry, Trevor is a uniquely qualified and experienced Strategic Executive Coach. Learn more about Trevor here.