Avoiding the Freakout Mentality
by Geoff Hineman
If you work in any environment long enough, you are sure to witness what I call, The Freakout. It's that moment when someone in the organization has noticed that something has gone wrong. What follows is complete panic as the person starts imagining all of the negative things that could happen because of the newfound problem. Since the finder of the problem is falling down a rabbit hole of infinite negative possibilites, he or she is not doing anything to fix the problem; so that person has to run to someone who can help. Since the finder of the problem is in full panic mode, the next person in line senses the panic and, naturally, also starts to panic—sometimes before even knowing what the actual problem is. This continues on down the line until the whole organization is in full freakout mode, because the sky is clearly falling. That's when the problem hits your desk.
How the Freakout Happens.
As it turns out, humans are naturally hardwired to react this way. It's a survival mechanism. Humans are emotional creatures first and foremost. The way we deal with sensory stimulus differs based upon which part of the brain is doing the heavy lifting. If we react with the limbic system, we are much more likely to have a strong emotional reaction. To be able to react logically, the frontal lobe needs to be engaged. Herein lies the problem... New sensory information MUST pass through the limbic system before reaching the frontal lobe. There is no leap-frogging. Humans are built to react emotionally first. Add a mob mentality of people freaking out and the deck is really stacked against you to not freak out.
Step 1: The Freakout Stops with You
The good news is that the frontal lobe will engage if you give it just a little bit of time. Knowing this is the first step in stopping the freakout. It's very easy to think of every possible thing that could go wrong, but it does nothing to remedy the situation. So, meet the panic with the knowledge that the panic is temporary. Take some deep breaths and listen to the problem. I mean, really listen to the problem, without judging whether it is good news or bad news; objectivity is key here. By actively listening to what the actual problem is, you give your frontal lobe time to engage. This is exactly what will prevent the freakout.
Step 2: Assess the Situation
Now that we have committed to looking at the information objectively, we need to assess the situation by asking ourselves questions, such as:
- Have I encountered this situation (or something similar to it) before?
- If so, how was the problem resolved?
- Along the way to resolution, what strategies worked? Which ones didn't?
By doing this kind of assessment, we are keeping the frontal lobe fully engaged and well on our way toward fixing a problem, rather than just reacting to it.
Step 3: Focus on What You Can Control.
I perform search engine optimization (SEO). I deal with search engine algorithms daily and have done so for more than 10 years. As such, I know which parts of the algorithm I can influence and which parts I can't. I know this can change from time to time, which is also important. Why? Because focusing what I can change is the start of the resolution process. It's okay to not have the entire solution. Sometimes you will, indeed, have the entire solution. Sometimes you won't. When you don't have the entire solution, focus on the elements that you can control.
Step 4: Make Changes and Observe.
Implement the changes you can and keep track of those changes. Then... observe. When you implement changes and observe, you will often see that the next steps become readily apparent. That's because those small changes that affect the whole will move you closer or further away from the solution. This is key as it presents a strategic trajectory—one to be followed or abandoned in favor of a different strategy. If your changes work, great! If your changes have made the situation worse, go back to Step 2 and try again. Just don't freak out.
Sometimes, it's very difficult to find calm in the chaotic moments, especially when dollars and even people's livelihoods are affected. That said, reacting without thinking is the first step towards disaster and our body's basic physiology makes reacting without thinking a priority, which is great for species propagation, but not always ideal for problem solving. By first making the clear decision that the freakout stops with you, you can get to addressing the actual problem. By controlling the elements within your control, you can also help quell the freakout among others, because you have shifted the emotional response to the solution, rather the problem, and that changes everything.