There’s an old improv routine in which the late comedy legend Carl Reiner interviews a man who claims to be 2,000 years old, played by Mel Brooks.

        REINER: What was the main means of transportation back then?

        BROOKS: Mostly fear.

        REINER: Fear transported you?

        BROOKS: Fear, yes. An animal would growl, you would go two miles in a minute. Fear was our main propulsion.

Thankfully, being consumed by a wild animal ranks fairly low on the list of things most of us need to worry about these days. Though the risks we face have evolved over the millennia, the way humans respond to stressful situations both physically and mentally has remained essentially the same.

At the first sign of danger, the area of our brain that handles emotion, called the amygdala, sends an S.O.S. to our neurological crisis command center, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then signals our adrenal glands to let loose a flood of epinephrine (AKA adrenalin) into the bloodstream, setting off a rapid cascade of physiological changes. Our heart beats faster and harder to pump extra blood to the muscles and vital organs. Our breathing quickens and small airways in the lungs open up to extract more oxygen from every breath to make us more alert. Fat and glucose our body keeps stored away for emergencies is released into the bloodstream to give us a burst of energy. And up the tree we go—literally or figuratively.

It all happens so fast we are able to leap reflexively from the path of a speeding truck before our visual cortex even has time to register what color it is. Quite impressive for a species that has trouble patting its head and rubbing its tummy at the same time, if you ask me.

This amazing survival mechanism evolution blessed us with is just the ticket when we’re in immediate physical danger. But our innate survival instinct has a downside. It can trip us up royally in a crisis where the dangers we’re forced to confront are more complex and nuanced than a saber-tooth tiger looking for brunch.

In a crisis, stress undermines our ability to think clearly, make sense of incoming information and make rational decisions. It can tempt us to overanalyze data to the point of paralysis or react to it with reckless impulsivity. Stress sharpens our senses but can narrow our focus to the point where we lose sight of the big picture and become oblivious to events unfolding around us. And that’s just for starters.

When stress distracts us from thinking straight, it no longer protects us from danger. It becomes a danger.

While we can’t change the way humans are hard-wired for stress, we can control how we let it influence us. When we are conscious of how stress affects our thoughts, actions and decisions, we can take countermeasures to harness unhelpful emotional energy and channel in more productive directions to change the course of the crisis for the better, demonstrate responsible leadership and protect and enhance reputation and trust.

Be the calm

When medical students learn how to “run a code”—that is, resuscitate someone in cardiac arrest—they’re taught to pause for a few seconds to take their own pulse before turning their attention to the patient. Stopping to take a few deep, mindful breaths before diving headfirst into a crisis does a couple of  things.

When we’re in survival mode, the rational thought centers of our brain power down to provide additional energy for fighting and fleeing. A conscious pause gives our pre-frontal cortex a chance to reboot and get back to the critical work of problem-solving and decision-making. Just as important, it grounds us in a state of calm, allowing us to tune out whatever drama may be taking place around us and form our own clear, objective view of the situation.

The ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness can be extremely helpful in managing crisis stress and keeping it from steering us dangerously off-course. Mindfulness teaches a variety of techniques to detach from counterproductive thinking and return to a state of mind where we feel more relaxed and in control of our thoughts, feelings and actions. Mindfulness apps such as Calm, Headspace, the aptly named Stop, Think & Breathe and others are a good (and often free) way to learn the basics, discover the tools and techniques we find most helpful and practice using them before pandemonium hits.

Stop the spread

The terms stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. Although they have many symptoms in common, they come from different places.

Stress is a reaction to an external force or event such as a pandemic or a surprise visit from your in-laws. Anxiety, on the other hand, originates inside us. It’s how we respond internally to stress and, more specifically, the uncertainty that comes with it. Think of it as mother nature’s way of urging us to resolve whatever is uncertain so we can focus on more important things.

Stress and anxiety are both highly contagious. In the heat of a crisis, not letting the emotional mishegas of those around us add to our own stress level is only half the battle. Reining in people’s anxiety before it can infect the entire organization and trigger widespread panic is the other.

Since uncertainty breeds anxiety, it stands to reason that injecting a measured dose of certainty into people’s lives when they’re feeling frightened and adrift would help ease their angst and keep it from spreading. The most powerful way to do this is actually very simple—just give them something to do.

Psychologists like to say that action binds anxiety. Behavioral research from past pandemics bears this out, showing that workers are more likely to remain focused and productive during a crisis if they are given a crisis-related job to perform that is separate from their typical work and gives them a sense of responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their friends and colleagues. It need not be a major task. Something as simple as deputizing workers to thank their fellow employees for wearing masks or distribute information from credible sources to combat misinformation can go a long way toward restoring their sense of confidence and control.

Fight fatigue

Research shows that our ability to make rational decisions deteriorates over time. It’s as though we’re allocated a fixed amount of energy for making decisions. The more complex the decisions and the more of them we are forced to make without a break, the faster our decision-making battery runs down. As the meter approaches empty, the less rational each additional decision becomes. Psychologists call this phenomenon “decision fatigue.”

Decision fatigue explains why prisoners whose parole hearings are scheduled first thing in the morning are much more likely to be granted parole than those who appear later in the day. Decision fatigue also makes us more susceptible to behaving impulsively. Psychologists suggest this may explain why politicians and CEOs whose jobs revolve around making numerous critical decisions during the day seem more prone to making monumentally bad ones in their personal lives after dark. (See also: Spitzer, Gov. Eliot)

The best way to prevent decision fatigue is, not surprisingly, to make fewer decisions. While this might seem easier said than done in a crisis when all hell is breaking loose, it’s really not. It does, however, take some advance thinking.

The answer is to distribute responsibility for making critical decisions across multiple teams. Designating separate teams to fight the immediate fires and restore essential operations; allocate people and resources; gather and interpret intelligence; tend to customers and other key stakeholders; and keep the organization’s long-term strategic plans from getting sidetracked significantly reduces the risk of decision fatigue and improves overall decision quality when it’s needed the most.

Mind your biases

As humans, we tend to overestimate our ability to think and behave rationally. In reality, every decision and judgment we make is influenced by a set of unconscious cognitive biases—mental shortcuts we develop as we go through life to save time and brainpower. At last count, Wikipedia listed more than a hundred such decision biases that under various circumstances can distort our perceptions, cloud our judgment, twist our logic and lead us to think and act irrationally without ever realizing it. And we’re never more susceptible to them than we are in the heat of a crisis.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and credit information that supports and confirms our existing beliefs and values and dismiss evidence that conflicts with our thinking. Among other problems, confirmation bias can make us dangerously overconfident in our grasp of what’s happening in a crisis and our ability to control it.

Anchoring bias is the inclination to assign excess importance to the first piece of information we receive. We “anchor” our thinking to our initial impression and use it as a reference point to interpret everything that follows. In a crisis, anchoring bias may motivate us to doggedly pursue an initial strategic course despite mounting evidence that we’ve misidentified the central problem and that the true crisis is spinning further out of control.

Bandwagon bias (AKA herd mentality or groupthink) is the subconscious tendency to align our thinking and behavior with others. The more people who line up behind a particular position or idea, the more likely it is that those who arrive later will hop on the bandwagon and go along for the ride. One problem with bandwagon bias in crisis situations is that strategies that are easier for the majority to understand are likely to win out over more creative or sophisticated approaches, even if the latter are considered potentially more effective.

Single-action bias is the mistaken assumption that a problem is fully solved as soon as we take an initial action. Lulled into a false sense of security, we ignore the very real possibility that a crisis may have multiple root causes and leave serious issues unresolved until the inevitable next crisis erupts.      

One more thing

In times of crisis, people’s collective anxiety can quickly coalesce into an overwhelming sense of urgency to “do something.” While it’s natural to want to put the crisis in the rear-view mirror and end the discomfort, emotionally driven efforts to bring premature closure are a recipe for disaster.

Avoid the temptation to run with the first viable strategy that presents itself or to seek comfort in the status quo and do what has always been done in the past. Instead, try seeing the crisis for what it is—a precious opportunity to show what an organization and its people are made of while the world is watching. Leaders who focus on taking bold, responsible action in times of trouble—doing what’s necessary and right, rather than what’s safe and easy—will be surprised at how quickly the stress and agita of the crisis give way to pride and accolades for a crisis well-handled.

We’ll wrap up our series on Building Crisis Immunity next time with a look at crisis insurance. If you’re just joining us, be sure to check out our first four chapters: Why Crisis Immunization is the New Crisis Planning in a Post-Covid WorldAn Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Truckload of Antacids, 5 Healthy Habits to Inoculate Your Organization Against Crisis and Exercise Your Way to Reputation Resilience.

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