This is basically a biological decoder for all incoming environmental signals. Humans have survived for thousands of years on this planet. We're an incredibly resilient species in our brain has evolved to increase our odds of survival. There are three elements that comprise our survival system.
- The first one is the amygdala. It is a small region of the brain responsible for processing threats, fear, and anxiety. It has helped us survive, learn, and adapt through the millennia. The amygdala activates a fight or flight response before we have conscious awareness of a threat. It makes sense. The medulla shortcuts our intellectual processing, interpret stimuli and triggers If physiological response. It sends a signal to deploy a chemical cocktail spiked with a hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which makes us physically stronger and faster. Those milliseconds of additional speed are critical, especially if there's a tiger running towards us. The amygdala is also responsible for processing anxiety. Anxiety is different from fear. Anxiety is a form of dread about a potential fret. It's not activated by the presence of physical danger, but rather by our thoughts. Thoughts are as real to our brain as the actual physical threat. That's why thoughts of an upcoming change trigger anxiety in so many of us.
- The second element of our survival system is the process of assigning meaning. Our brain likes to assign meaning to things if the mean is not immediately apparent. After all, we need to understand if a particular event has the potential to cause us harm. We know what the tiger staring at us means, but we don't always know what pending change will mean to us. In that case, the neurological design of our brain triggers the process of filling in the blanks for the missing information about the meaning of a particular change. That type of information that gets filled is largely dependent on the frame of mind, previous experiences in our psychological health across all spheres of life. But that's not all.
- The third element of a survival system is the negativity bias. In a nutshell, negativity bias is our predisposition to focus on and lean towards negative thoughts. Because the meaning of situation can determine whether we live or die, negativity bias ways our thoughts toward the negative. If we're filling in the blanks, we typically do it with negative or worrisome thoughts. We assume the worst case scenario.
Remember, our goal here is to survive. In my experience working with organizations, one thing is clear. Organizations today are over-saturated with changes. In even the smallest ones activate the survival system and employees. Why? Because the meaning of changes is not transparent and also because employees have lives. So changes at work create the compound negative effect. The first question employees typically ask is, what does this mean for me? With no explanation, they assume the worst. Something like my job will be eliminated or I will be forced out. The meaning of work-related change will deteriorate even faster if a person is going through hard times in other areas of life. Such circumstances outside of work intensify anxiety and create overwhelm for the individual. Even though our survival system is designed to help us stay alive, too many changes can create paralysis, which may even lead to depression. As leaders, we should not fold ourselves in others for being fearful or overwhelmed by change. We should recognize change over saturation as a constant and help ourselves and others disempower fear and anxiety. We do this by communicating the meaning of any change in the clear, detail and transparent way. So our survival system has time to reset.