Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen organizations and leaders operate from their survival instinct, and we’ve also seen those who have seized opportunities and successfully adapted.
I’ve been reading Change by John Kotter, and he discusses survive and thrive channels. Throughout most of our existence as humans, we have experienced physical threats, including weather, wild animals, lack of secure housing, enemies, and food shortages. Humans are arguably safer now than ever before. However, our brains have evolved to have an extremely strong survival instinct. When we are in survival mode, our brains respond with intense focus, anxiety, and increased energy. This state ensures we focus on one thing: survival.
I have realized in my work helping organizations and individuals change is that it is common for our survival instincts to be triggered by change. When changes are announced, we naturally wonder how the change will affect us. We subconsciously or consciously evaluate whether this change is a threat to my livelihood, quality of life, etc. The brain responds in the same way it would to a physical threat.
Technology can trigger a survival response, and I have occasionally noticed irrational feelings of panic when notifications on my phone go off. Kotter (2021) discusses how our survive channels are often “overheated” in today’s world. As a result, we struggle to move beyond our “laser-focused” attention on survival and see the big picture.
Kotter also discusses the thrive channel which elicits a different response from the brain, including passion, prolonged excitement and energy, creativity, and collaboration. Leaders can encourage those around them to experience thriving by helping them understand the possibilities. Effective leaders are able to intentionally switch back and forth between the survive and thrive channels.
I encourage leaders to think about how they can apply understanding of the survive and thrive channels within their organizations. First of all, we can be aware that change often moves people into survival mode. We can help those around us explore the possibilities and opportunities instead of slipping into feelings of self preservation. Leaders can foster thriving by leading with a compelling vision for the future.
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Kotter, J., Akthar, V., & Gupta, G. (2021). Change: How organizations achieve hard-to-imagine results in uncertain and volatile times. Wiley.