When faced with a high-stress situation, one that even feels threatening, it can feel like we don’t have control over our response. Research has shown that our bodies can instinctively go into a “fight-or-flight” reaction. As a leader, the more effectively you can self-regulate these reactions the better you can lead and help others. Recent research in the field of neuroscience offers insights into this process of self-regulation and how you can move from the fight-or-flight response to a higher state of openness that invites collaboration, creativity, and thriving.
A CEO called one of us (Robert) for help. The company she was leading was on the cusp of a huge opportunity related to a new technology. But she was stymied and stuck.
One of the representatives for an investor in the project was extremely assertive and self-interested. They had intimidated several of her company’s strong board members, who were now withdrawing the financial support they had already committed. The entire endeavor was at risk.
It took 20 minutes for the CEO to describe all the complexities. As she did, Robert felt a knot in his stomach. She expected him to add value and yet he was struggling to even comprehend the issues. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to help and a part of him just wanted to end the call and distance himself from this mess. Rather than doing that, he understood that his anxiety was a signal to slow down. He began to self-regulate.
Recent research in the field of neuroscience, specifically polyvagal theory, offers insights into this process of self-regulation and how you can move from a “fight or flight” response to a higher state of openness that invites collaboration, creativity, and thriving. Studies have shown that specific tactics, which we’ll explain more below, can help us navigate our natural tendency to be defensive when confronted.
Another one of us (Stephen) developed polyvagal theory, which explains how our nervous system regulates our behavior, both collaborative and defensive, using the vagus nerve, the major parasympathetic nerve in the autonomic nervous system. This nerve provides bi-directional connections between the brain and the heart, gut, and other organs in our body, and is part of a predictable response sequence that is activated when we are threatened. There are three levels to this response.
The first is immobilization, or what we call level one. Under dire threat, a reptile, mammal, or human may collapse and mimic death. This is a natural and adaptive reaction. For example, when a mouse is trapped by a cat, the mouse may reflexively shut down and appear to be dead. Consequently, the cat loses interest in the mouse and the mouse is able to escape. This is a rare reaction in humans but it does happen.
Level two is mobilization. Under threat, the heart begins to beat faster. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, the body produces cortisol and adrenaline and prepares for action. This is the fight-or-flight response. We become aggressive, or we flee.
The third level of response is engagement and connection. When we feel safe again, we begin to function differently. It is at this level that a uniquely mammalian vagal pathway becomes functional and quiets the defensive features of both the fight/flight and shutdown pathways. The body releases oxytocin. In this state, we are more open to others and experience a sense of connectedness that can lead to collaboration and learning.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, a prominent evolutionary biologist, has refined Charles Darwin’s famous quote about evolution being a “survival of the fittest,” to add that: “The fittest may also be the gentlest because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation.” In Dobzhansky’s view, it is connectedness and collaboration that has enabled the evolutionary success of mammals and humans.
When we’re able to reach level three, our vision, hearing, voice, and mind begin to work in concert with our heart. We are able to feel our bodies, as opposed to the numbness we may feel at levels one and two during a confrontation. We are not in the “tunnel vision” of fight or flight so we can more accurately read the faces and the nonverbal signals of others. We see the bigger picture and connect with others around shared goals. In short, our relational and learning capacity increases.
As a leader, the more effectively you can self-regulate — particularly moving from the frequently occurring level two to level three — the better you can lead and help others. Based on our experiencing applying polyvagal theory to situations like the one Bob was in with the CEO, we’ve developed a five-step framework to help people make this shift.
Step 1– Understanding: The first step is knowing the biology behind these reactions and accepting that being at level one, two, or three is normal. Knowing where you are on the hierarchy gives you choice and the power to shift.
Step 2– Awareness: When you feel challenged, notice the physical and emotional cues that signal you’re experiencing anxiety. Do you feel a knot in your stomach? Or your heart racing? See these as signs of where you are in your reaction: likely level two.
Step 3 – Recall: Bring to mind previous experiences where you’ve successfully moved through uncertainty in the past. You might even write down what you did to navigate a difficult situation and use your own success to give yourself hope that you can get through this one too.
Step 4 – Intention: With hope in mind, let go of the need to serve your ego by clarifying your highest purpose. Focusing on your intention will release oxytocin and help you shift to level three.
Step 5 – Trust the process: When you’re at level three, it’s much easier to explore and develop ideas with the other person. The interaction is an emergent learning process — it will be challenging, but as long as you stay connected and don’t move back to level one or two, you can get through it together. In fact, you can become skilled at making others safe and keep inviting them back into mutually beneficial conversations.
Robert used this framework when he was talking to the CEO and he noticed himself going into fight or flight, wanting to flee the conversation. To make sure he was in a state where he could think clearly, he consciously drew on his memory of past challenges and successes. He thought about prior experiences when he had felt uncertain and vulnerable yet managed to move forward. These memories increased his confidence in his ability to navigate this situation. He also thought about what he could bring to the conversation with the CEO — his higher purpose — which allowed him to consciously shift from fear to hope.
Energized by this purpose, he invited the CEO to continue speaking, rather than trying to end the call. He used verbal signals of inclusion to support safety and trust. These included statements of authentic vulnerability and the use of genuine inquiry. When she finished, for example, he said, “Your challenge is very difficult. I can barely understand it. So, let me repeat to you my flawed comprehension so you can correct me.”
It was a vulnerable act to admit that he didn’t fully comprehend what she was saying but being authentic signaled that he trusted the CEO, and his openness signaled she could trust him. She spent another seven minutes further clarifying and as she did, she and Robert entered into a state of co-regulation where ideas, emotions, and possibilities could be exchanged without hesitation, embarrassment, or fear.
Once Robert felt safe, and deeply listened to her clarifications, oxytocin was flowing and he felt more mentally open. Instead of orienting to the problem, he focused on possibility and called her attention to a larger vision. Instead of seeking to get the already promised resources, could she take a new approach? Could she explore the original intentions of each actor? Why did they care enough to sign up and invest? Were they committed enough to become more engaged? Could she boldly ask for funding that would take the company, not a few months into the future, but years into the future? Could she invite them to make a greater commitment? Could she lead them in co-regulating their way to higher collaboration?
The CEO, intrigued, said she could try it out. A month later, she called Robert to report that the strategy, with further modifications, had brought success. The board members were more committed and optimism was up.
Self-regulation opens the way to collaboration and change. Understanding our biological reactions in high-stress situations gives us a path to follow; it is then our choice if we walk this path or fight it. And the choice we make is often the difference between our success and failure.
Robert E. Quinn is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a cofounder of the school’s Center for Positive Organizations.
David P. Fessell is an executive coach, professor of radiology at the University of Michigan Medical School, and faculty associate at the Positive Organizational Scholarship group at the Ross School of Business. He writes and speaks on emotional intelligence, mentoring, resilience, and positive emotions including humor. He is a graduate of the Second City Improv Conservatory.
Stephen W. Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium and is professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. He is the originator of the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that emphasizes the importance of physiological state in mental and physical health.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.