Guest Blog by Dr. Samineh I. Shaheem
Working in a team is often transformative, exciting and challenging. We are social creatures. Therefore, the pull between working independently and working as a group results in an interesting tension that can be both constructive and damaging. Teamwork is a central element of why organizations might succeed or fail. This makes it necessary to better understand the dynamics and skills for teamwork involved.
Fight or Flight: Developing Skills for Teamwork to Curtail These Impulses
Teams may not operate as smoothly because of the inevitable conflict, disagreements and stressful situations that aren't planned and prepared for or resolved properly. For instance, at a weekly team meeting, you’re suddenly asked to present an update on a project you're running. Unfortunately, you’re no where near ready - let alone prepared with any kind of interesting insights off the top of your head to share. You have two possible reactions: fight or flight.
Skills for teamwork: Fight
If you have to present, you speak as fast as possible in order to quickly get it over with.
Skills for teamwork: Flight
You try and get out of speaking by saying you’re not ready and don’t feel comfortable presenting at all.
Skills for Teamwork: The History
As first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon, these outcomes illustrate the two poles of the fight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response). When we interpret a situation as intimidating or terrifying, our internal processes that are built into the brain prepare us by releasing hormones into the body. Our hormones tell us to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.
Our ancestors benefited greatly from this survival mechanism. Nonetheless, it isn’t always accurate. Since it happens automatically, interpretation can be faulty; at times is activated when there isn’t any kind of real danger. Phobias, for example, demonstrate the sometimes flawed mechanism of fight or flight. More specifically, even a perceived threat can trigger changes in our nervous system such as heart palpitation and increased respiration rate. We may be unable to control or regret later certain behaviors as a result.
So the reason for this discussion is twofold. First, our response to this stress is prone to mistakes. However, it’s possible that we can manage and even rewire it. Secondly, why should we only acknowledge two opposing poles of reaction? Over time we have evolved sufficiently to demonstrate other reactions along that continuum, wouldn't you agree?
Skills for Teamwork: Understanding Behavior
Here are some more possible responses, both helpful and harmful ones, based on our example above. Which reactions do you express?
- Freeze - You’re mind goes blank. You doubt yourself. When you do manage to string a few words together, your presentation sounds artificial and robotic.
- Fade – You remain quiet, avoid the issue, and deny what is happening. You hope that it will just fade away or be forgotten.
- Flurry – In a mad frenzy, you leave the meeting room. You demonstrate anger and insecurity. The situation is unresolved and people will have a negative impression about you.
- Fuss – You complain and argue about the injustice of what is being asked. You create a tense environment to get out of the situation by showing an emotional reaction to the request.
- Fool – You try and come up with a false excuse or use lies, such as having to go to another meeting soon, in order to get out of the situation.
- Fan – You use distraction tactics by pulling others into the discussion and/or moving the focus away from the requested task.
- Formulate – You professionally acknowledge what’s been asked of you and at the same time you try and formulate a compromise of perhaps being given more time to prepare so that everyone could benefit from the discussion.
- Fix – A solution is reached, at the end of the discussion following ‘formulate’, where all people involved seem satisfied with the outcome.
As psychologists, we are always interested in helping people find ways to confront and prevent stress in order live healthier, more productive lives.
Skills for teamwork: Manage Emotions
Knowing that to a large extent we can manage both external and internal conditions creates a deeper sense of awareness about our level of controllability and predictability regarding our personal and professional life. You have the ability to communicate and respond calmly to the changes that occur within your system so rather than being emotionally hijacked, make sure you’re consciously involved in that process.
So the next time you face an emotive situation when working as a part of a team, remember that between fight or flight there are other paths you can take to arrive at a favourable destination.
Dr. Samineh I. Shaheem is a Professor of Organisational Behavior at Hult International Business School and Neuroleadership Consultant. Learning and development has been the main focus of her career, in a deep and deliberate manner, through the application of psychological and adult educational principles and practices. As well as lecturing, she works as a Training & Development consultant with private and public organisations to support associates broaden their knowledge, skills, abilities, and opportunities to be successful in their job and career aspirations. She has worked in the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and now the UAE. In 2010, she founded the Bolt Down on Bullying Campaign as way to raise awareness and introduce ways of confronting/prevent bullying in the UAE, both in schools and work places. Dr Shaheem believes, 'learning more results in living more.'