Well-Being//

What to Do When “Flailing Arms Syndrome” Hijacks Your Management

A peek inside the fight-or-flight response that's stressing you out.

By Carolyn Thornlow

It has often been said that managers suffer from SOS (Shiny Object Syndrome). When all the light is shone upon one idea or project, it can appear exceedingly attractive. It becomes metaphorically shiny, and to it goes all the attention. Necessary attention can thus be drawn away from the company’s fundamental needs, while excitement shuts down the critical thinking that allows a manager realize this. Much has been written about this, but little about its corollary – flailing arms syndrome. This is when drama – stirred by grand-standing, pressures to meet deadlines, urges to win, or conflict – hijacks management’s core mission.

When I was starting out as a consultant, I was a member of the Strategic Management Society. They held an annual dinner at which there was a silent auction. There were two subscriptions to Harvard Business Review up for bid, their placards and bidding sheets right next to each other. As the clock ticked ever-closer to the time when the final bid would be cast, the two interested bidders – a man in his thirties and a woman in her fifties – stayed rooted in the space around the sheets. Tick tock. They reached across each other and scribbled. Tick tock. The reaching and scribbling became furious, arms flailing like those wind-inflated tube characters. Tick tock. It was almost a bar brawl. Thank goodness someone announced when the bidding closed.

Who won? Well, that’s debatable, and also the subject of the real lesson I learned that night. The man won the auction. He won both subscriptions, each at a cost above that which any rational person would pay. He would get to read the delicious HBR content once, having paid for it more than twice. Granted, the extra money was going to the association to which we belonged, allowing him to view his faux pas as charity. And maybe he could gift the second subscription to someone to curry some favor. But these are rationalizations that justify the proverbial lemonade made from unwanted lemons. It should not be lost in this parable that the strategic objective of management is to avoid lemons in the first place.

Humans do this. Everyone is prone to being so focused on their end goal that they lose sight of the fact that winning can actually be losing. Put some competition in the mix, and the “amygdala gets hijacked,” as Daniel Goleman, of Emotional Intelligence fame, has termed. The amygdala is the part of the brain that signals fight or flight. Following evolutionary biology, a lot of human response is anchored to survival. When faced with threat, cortisol is released, increasing glucose so that larger muscles are called into the action. To aid in this biologic efficiency, the amygdala also shuts down the prefrontal cortex so that the demands of thinking won’t pull glucose away from the muscles. In other words: When arms are proverbially flailing, you literally can’t think.

Given such a framework, it appears that mistake-making is hardwired. In the years since that silent auction, I can attest that mistakes in business proliferate more than they should. I have even done a field study on failure and found that the causes of these mistakes were knowable and correctable, but were nonetheless ignored. Managers frequently miss that bottom lines and brands exist in a maelstrom of entropic forces, their own notwithstanding. The fix lies in smoking out these forces so that they are appropriately spotlighted. Only then can operating plans be evaluated for their relevance to the whole picture.

[Related: 8 Steps to Project Success, Even if You’re Not a Project Manager]

This means that the most important mandate of management is getting the big picture. When using big picture thinking, a manager will:

  • Know the rules of engagement for the meta game that is being played.
  • See all the pieces of the puzzle.
  • Understand the power laws inherent in each component piece.
  • Identify how component pieces are, or can be, dependent upon one another.
  • Anticipate reactions of component pieces when in play with other pieces, and when presented with change and challenge.

This perspective is what undergirds managers as they invent, create, and adapt best practices that relevantly speak to their unique set of challenges.

The amygdala can be controlled. It does take a plan to regularly visit the big picture point of view. With time and repetition, new neural pathways are lain, and big picture thought processes become dominant. Consider that law enforcement does not run away in the face of danger, and doctors don’t faint at the sight of blood. They have internalized their overarching professional imperatives so that they override more rudimentary reactions.

This is what separates masters from beginners for all professionals, including managers. There is a supremely professional way to manage, and it has everything to do with a commitment to getting the big picture.

Carolyn Thornlow brings closely-held businesses to the next level. She has a course in development, The Big Picture Plan, which teaches stakeholders how to get the big picture so that they can be their own management consultants.

Originally published at www.ellevatenetwork.com

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