The fight or flight response, can it be trained to improve your daily output and produce a winning performance?

I have thought long and hard about what to write, and how to follow up on our October blog, which was so well received! Well, the team challenged me to come up with something that is so cerebral that it challenges the norm. They dropped this challenge on me while we sat and discussed our 2017 sales budgets, so here goes. 

The Fight or flight response, can it be trained to improve your daily output and produce a winning performance? 

Fight or Flight, which is also called the “acute stress response” refers to a physiological reaction when something occurs that is terrifying both physically or mentally!  What I wondered as the team presented their budgets, is does this occur on a ‘more simple’ basis in everyday life when faced with something that takes us slightly outside of our comfort zones? Like setting budgets and targets! 

Michael Hepple the author of a number of well-known motivational books states that 95% of the stuff that we are frightened of, is just false evidence and that you can train your brain to decide where your thought processes end up. The Limbic system filters your thoughts and decides if your thoughts go to the Reptilian part of your brain (fight or flight) or the Neo Cortex side (creative, imaginative part of the brain) and that changing your inner thoughts and how you speak to yourself can change the destination of your first thought process. So, is it nature or nurture that can drive people to overcome their fears and step outside of their comfort zones to achieve greatness? 

It is a common perception that some people are simply born to do something, they have a natural talent and no matter what, they will always do well! On the other hand, there are others who could never reach those levels, no matter how much they try!  So as an athlete (well I used to be) I wanted to find evidence that would challenge this. Could elite performance be nurture based and not just based on pure natural talent, after all when I was training I constantly heard “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard”. 

I read, before the challenge has been laid down, that the bodies sympathetic nervous system stimulates the Adrenal glands, which release adrenaline and other chemicals, which results in an increased heart rate, high blood pressure and a change in the someone’s breathing rate. So, while my team presented their budgets for 2017, I watched their breathing to see if it increased due to the stress of presenting their budgets!  I got to thinking about how I could change their potential fight or flight response into a creative thinking approach if they displayed such symptoms. I then wanted to find something that I could use to enable my team to perform better when I placed them outside their natural comfort zone, which would not lead to the fight or flight response but to a creative approach. 

My research led me to articles about ‘are geniuses born or created’? It appears that in the main they are created. No, I hear you shout. Apparently, they say to be a master, you need to have completed 10,000 hours of training, but not just training “purposeful training”. This is where the participants are fully focused on the tasks at hand and how the likes of Tiger Woods, Einstein, Beckham etc. in their formative years spent most of their free time honing their skills, so that by the time they were about 8 or 9 years of age they had already completed their 10,000 hours of “purposeful training”, where the average person would not even have reached 500 hours, hence they appeared to be geniuses in comparison.  

The Polgar family proved this with an incredible experiment! Laszio Polgar wanted to prove that child protégées are created not born and with the right child-rearing he could create a child protégée. His first-born Susan, he decided to teach her chess. Mainly because the outside world would not be able to say it was down to her physical capabilities etc. so from the age of 4 chess was introduced to Susan and they treated chess like a toy. Susan and her father played for hours on ends, he learned all the great chess moves from books and introduced them to Susan during their play. At the age of 8 she won an under 11 competition with a perfect score, by 12 she was the best player in her country, by 15 she was the best female player in the world and for the next 23 years she was constantly a top female 3 chess master in the world. A job well done by Laszio.  

Now you might think that was luck, however, if I said Susan had 2 younger sisters called Judit and Sofia, who also became part of the experiment, and the three of them have dominated chess for the last 20 plus years, showing that it is the practice that makes you a champion and not nature. They have all beaten the world’s best men and women and are all individually grand masters and multiple world champions. So how could I put this methodology and thinking into the workplace?  

As my team presented their budgets to me, they all displayed the signs of nervous stimulation as the fight and or flight response kicked in. This lead me to ask a simple question, “do you honestly believe you can achieve your budget”? They were simply asked to present what they could achieve and given carte blanche to present a soft or hard budget. The team was unaware I had written a budget in advance for each line of business, containing my own expectations of what they could achieve, and what the business required the teams to deliver in order to grow.  

I was shocked, pleased and dismayed all at the same time at the height of their individual expectations, but I should not have been because Michelangelo did state “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it” and the team are all very competitive sales people.  However, what they were saying and what their bodies were displaying to me appeared in direct conflict, so when questioned “do you honestly believe you can achieve your budget?” hesitation and excuses became the norm, they were right in front of me internally deciding whether to fight of flight and truly hiding their fears, not wanting to be seen a failure! 

After reviewing each team members’ individual budgets, I gave them a two weeks cooling off period, where they could come back to me to adjust their forecasts up or down if required. Prior to them doing this, I undertook some training, which I based on Carol Dwecks thinking of “Growth Mindsets” and Matthew Syed’s findings of nature and nurture hoping I could change their reactions from fight or flight to a creative thinking mindset, or a “Growth Mindset”. As I revealed my budget to them, which in the main was lower, in some cases 25% lower and in others 100% lower, and they gained an understanding of my vision of the budget I saw a change in them and their other being. 

Suddenly they were suggesting ways they could achieve, telling me how they would deliver and what they needed to do and if something failed along the way, and how they would address their failures. All their new targets are higher than their last year’s performance, which takes each team member outside of their comfort zones, but just enough so that their Limbic system chooses the Neo Cortex side of the brain and not Fight or Flight.   

So now they are creating a belief system which says they can and will achieve. Internally they are looking for supporting evidence to back up their internal thoughts so that their inner thoughts are all about achievement. What a positive and enlightening budgeting period, which with my past managers was always frightening and the team almost always left feeling “how the hell am I going to achieve that?” Meaning the brain kicks into Fight or Flight mode immediately. Those who chose to fight normally hit the target, but many chose flight and failed, but could the results have been different by creative thinking rather than raw fear? 

This leads me back to the 10,000 hours of “purposeful practice”, you can drive a car for 10,000 hours and you still will not be the next Lewis Hamilton. It needs to be 10,000 hours of 100% focused effort to become an expert, and then it is down to marginal gains that decide who wins at the very top. However, does the Fight or Flight response kick in at the point that “purposeful practice” becomes harder and harder to achieve? Is this why children and adults give up when they believe they cannot achieve? Has the Limbic system chosen Fight or Flight due to the many failures? Did the fear of failure prevent a positive thought pattern forcing the Limbic system to send an internal response to the Reptilian side of your brain so that failure is never addressed creatively? If a failure was viewed in a more positive way would the Limbic system choose the Neo Cortex side of the brain potentially making someone to hang on in and not give up? 

So I started to think of the following questions “is it the passion for your job that gives you the enthusiasm to take failure in your stride and take purposeful actions daily to achieve the little wins?”  Or do our bosses ask for too much too quickly creating fear, which suppresses the passion and creates a type of fight or flight reaction, for which most people choose flight? Do people choose flight because it’s the easiest thing to do?  

I conclude this blog by asking yourself what your inner thoughts are telling you about your next task or action, which will put you outside of your comfort zone? Are you erring on the side of Fight or Flight or are you thinking of creatives ways to achieve? When present with your next target, what are your initial thoughts? 

So yes I firmly believe you can change a pessimistic response into an optimistic response but changing your inner thought patterns and embracing failure in a positive manner, which creates a “Growth Mindset” which looks for opportunity and not a “Fixed Mindset”, which once challenged, looks down the barrel of Flight or Fight.  

The above are my thoughts and interpretations based on things I have researched and read for many years, but feel free to question the above and come to your own conclusions, as there is some much out there to read on this subject. 

Thank you for your time. 


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