What Was I Thinking?

What Was I Thinking?

By Holly Green

by Holly Green

Have you ever made a dumb management decision? One that seemed like a good idea at the time, but after it fell flat you looked back and wondered, “What was I thinking?”

We all do this from time to time. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. But you may be surprised to learn that one cause of this particular human foible is rooted deep in our evolutionary past and in our brains. In fact, it has a lot to do with an evolutionary process we’re all familiar with: fight-or-flight.

Modern research has discovered that humans apply our fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself. It’s not the most earth-shattering scientific finding, perhaps, but it is one that has major consequences for today’s business leaders. Mental fight-or-flight causes us to miss obvious information that affects our markets, our customers and our business. It encourages decisions based on outdated assumptions rather than hard data. And it leads us to cling to the past rather than opening up to new possibilities – an essential leadership skill in today’s hyper-paced markets.

Here’s how it works.

Back in the old days, when our brain said “saber-tooth tiger!” we didn’t stand around debating the pros and cons of running away. We instinctively kicked into high gear and high-tailed it to a safer place. These days, when we hear an idea that threatens our prevailing view of the world, the same reaction takes place. Our bodies don’t physically run to a safer location, but our brains mentally do. We either reject the information out of hand (flight) or argue vociferously against it (fight).

This leads us to engage in two behaviors that do not support well-reasoned management decisions. When challenged, we give much greater credence to evidence and data that bolster our beliefs. And we vigorously dispute arguments, information and points of view that contradict our own. As a result, we constantly screen in the data that proves us right, screen out anything might prove us wrong, seeing only what we want to see. And so we miss seeing information that could prevent us from having to go back and ask, “What was I thinking?”

How can you tell when you’re in mental fight-or-flight mode?

  • You find yourself getting defensive when people challenge you.
  • You feel threatened by a statement, idea or issue.
  • You see others as stupid for having a different point of view.
  • You refuse to even consider an idea because “you know it isn’t true.”
  • You use words and phrases like “clearly…” and  “it’s obvious….” in defense of your position.

One big problem with mental fight-or-flight is that it happens instantaneously, just below the level of consciousness. The vast majority of the time, we’re not even aware it’s taking place. We hear a new idea, the brain perceives a threat, and our minds are instantly running to safety.

In order to keep our eyes and our minds open, we first need to become aware we’re in mental fight-or-flight, and then pause for a moment to let the conscious brain take over. Any time you have a strong, instantaneous emotional reaction to an idea or a statement, pause and ask yourself:

  • Why am I reacting so strongly to this issue?
  • What is my underlying assumption or belief that is being challenged?
  • Is this assumption or belief still true?
  • Is it time for me to update my thinking?
  • What do I stand to lose by having my point of view challenged?

We’re not going to change millions of years of brain evolution overnight. But we can minimize the damage by becoming aware of when we’re in mental fight-or-flight, and then logically assessing our reaction. The more we practice pausing and evaluating our mental fight-or-flight responses, the more distance we can put between now and our most recent “What was I thinking?”

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.