Thinking Correctly Under Pressure: Tackle your problems like the tiger!

One of the key factors influencing business success is identifying opportunities and creating and implementing a plan to achieve them (Banker, see footnotes). However, no matter how well you plan and organize your activities, there will be things that will go wrong. In research carried out by Don Senechal, F. Larry Leistritz, and Nancy Hodur, one of the most important factors of business success was having the skill required to make the right decisions. So, our ability to resolve concerns effectively is a key differentiating factor between achieving success or failing. But what does effective concern resolution mean? We all take actions to deal with our issues – is that not enough?

Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon in his book, “The Wisdom of the Body”, talked about people’s automatic response to perceived threat or danger. According to Cannon, in stressful situations (when we are under threat) there are three actions that we can take: Flight, Fight or Freeze.

The same idea can be applied when we are faced with business issues. We have identified some factors that threaten the success of a project. To help us to decide what action to take, we can consider the three Fs:

  1. Flight: Run away from the concern or do nothing to change the situation
  2. Fight: Take action, confront our issues and deal with them, or
  3. Freeze: Take a step back and assess the situation before taking any action

As human beings, our first reaction is “Flight” (run away from danger). That is how we evolved in order to be able to avoid conflict with other stronger creatures and that made a great deal of sense in prehistoric times. As Stuart Sorensen puts it, “We are descended from an ancestry of the fastest runners, and fleeing is an automatic response to save us from being something else’s buffet, built into all of us”. Evidence of that innate human behavior can be found just by looking in the mirror. You will notice that the ratio of the length of your legs compared to that of your body is larger.

However, when things are not working as they should be and goals are not being met, we don’t have the luxury or option of just running away from problems. Actions are required and therefore we usually move to the next option and decide to “Fight”.

Fighting, however, is very rarely successful when it is just an instinctive reaction. Jon Law (2010), martial arts instructor, informs us that when we are getting ready to fight, the body prepares itself by releasing powerful hormones, mainly adrenaline and cortisol. But these hormones cause changes in our body, such as increased heart rate or blood pressure, and can cause us to panic and act without thinking through the problem.

Jumping into action (or to use a common term, “firefighting”) without much preparation, strategy or tactics often leads to unwanted results. More issues surface; more tasks need to be actioned; there are not enough people to action them and consequently, we lose the fight.

We usually start by facing the most pressing concern and as we are trying to deal with it, other issues appear – possibly more problems are discovered or more risks need to be managed. And the main reason is that when we got into the “fight” we did not understand the situation well enough. So what else can we do?

It’s about time to consider the third F: “Freeze” the situation and assess it before we take action. Sorensen informs us that the human “survival protocol” (flight, fight or freeze) can also be found in many animals that are excellent in demonstrating those instincts. In order to understand what “freezing” is, we need to think about tigers.

Have you seen what takes place in documentaries when a tiger is getting ready to defend itself or getting ready for a hunt? In both situations you will notice that there is a time period in which the tiger takes a moment to assess the situation before taking action. There is always a period when he will crouch to the ground, or stand completely still, observing the environment and gathering data. The tiger then has two options: to either flee or fight. Just by taking those extra seconds to assess the situation, he has increased his chances of survival or of getting the most successful outcome out of the situation.

Although “freezing” seems like doing nothing, it is in reality the exact opposite. Bracha (2004), informs us that clinicians call the “freeze” reaction ‘hyper vigilance’ (being on guard or watchful, alert). It is at that moment that the tiger’s senses are heightened, that all the information is being processed and analyzed.

So, how can we apply what nature teaches us, to deal with business concerns more effectively? The key point is that we should not deal with a hot issue in haste, but rather allow ourselves to gauge our reactions, and take some moments to assess the situation first. Spending some time assessing the facts we have got and what information may be missing will give us a better understanding of the issue and the impacts and implications arising from it both now and in the future.

Situation Appraisal, a tool used by KT, is helping us do exactly that by urging us to take a step back and use a rational framework to process information. This framework provides a repeatable thinking process which allows us to process the incoming data more effectively, leading us to a successful and professional conclusion.

We start by gathering good quality data, like the tiger observing his surroundings. No matter what operating model we are using to resolve issues, the success of our plan will depend on our ability to capture the appropriate data (Imhoff, 2004). Obtaining the information we need will involve gathering facts firstly on what is the specific issue (getting details and increasing our understanding) and secondly what is the impact or effect that it is having, so that we can set the appropriate priority to the incoming concerns.

Only after getting clarity on the situation are we in a position to decide the best action to take to deal with the concern in the most effective way. This can be a problem that we need to solve, a decision that needs to be made, or an action that needs to be protected. So, knowing which course of action will be the most effective, we can then involve the people who will help us implement the plan in the most successful way.

Successful business tends to be more effective by adopting this approach because taking a step back and not rushing into action allows them to understand how their strategy and tactics should be formulated, giving them a clearer view of the plan they should follow and how to execute it in the best possible manner.

Next time you are faced with problems or concerns in your workplace, don’t firefight; take the time to assess the situation before you take action. Deal with your problems like the tiger….!


Cannon WB. The Wisdom of the Body: How the Human Body Reacts to Disturbance and Danger and maintains the stability essential to life. The Norton Library, W.W Norton & Company Inc, NY, 1932

Stuart Sorensen (Stuart Sorensen’s blog), February 2010, http://stuartsorensen.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/emotional-management-7-freeze-flight-or-fight-the-australopithecus-and-the-sabre-toothed-tiger/

Jon Law (EPIC Martial Arts Blog), May 2010, http://epicmartialartsblog.com/freeze-fight-flight-and-martial-arts-training/

H.Stefan Bracha, MD, CNS Spectrums, Issue 9, September 2004 http://cogprints.org/5014/1/2004_C.N.S_Five_Fs_of_FEAR–Freeze_Flight_Fight_Fright_Faint.pdf

Don Senechal, (Founding Principal, The Windmill Group) , F. Larry Leistritz,(Professor, Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, North Dakota State University), Nancy Hodur, (Research Scientist, Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, North Dakota State University), Value Added Business Success Factors: Organizational Issues, March 2010, http://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/wholefarm/html/c5-184.html

Marian Banker, Top 7 Critical Business Success Factors, 2000, http://top7business.com/?Top-7-Critical-Business-Success-Factors-2000&id=127

Claudia Imhoff, Business Intelligence – Five Factors For Success, August 2004, http://www.b-eye-network.com/view/252

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