During my halcyon days of working in the basement at a large financial services company, I noticed a group that frequently had “parties” in one corner of our dark and server-cold basement workspace. Unfortunately, these weren’t celebratory parties with beer, wings and bad karaoke. They were actually oh-my-god-our-site-is-getting-throttled-and-we’re-losing-shitloads-of-money-there-goes-our-bonus parties. They always started with one guy getting tons of instant messages. He’d start complaining, “there goes my lunch” or “that can’t be good.” Then the messages would turn into phone calls. A developer would start pounding on our locked door. Once he was in, everyone who worked with him would quickly follow. All of them gathered around one poor guy’s computer, followed by a chorus of “did you try…” or “are you sure…”
Since I worked on a completely different project, I stayed as far away from these gatherings as I could. The people gathering seemed to form a stressful knot which would become tighter and tighter. The air seemed to contract as the waves of stress would roll off of the group. During the worst of these, I packed up my laptop and went home to work.
Watching Curtis Koenig (nice template, dude!) give a Mozilla brownbag talk last week on “The Neurobiology of Decision Making or Knowing Where One’s Towel Is” reminded me of these parties. While I’ve read about the science behind “fight, flight or freeze” before, it was in the context of a conversation between two people. As a reminder, back in the day, we used the amygdala when we literally had to outrun our enemies or fight them to the death. The amygdala kicks off a rush of blood and adrenaline to the muscles, starving our brains of oxygen and turning us into, as Curtis says, hairless apes.
Protip: When your brain is starved of oxygen, you will not make the best decisions ever.
For this reason, a phrase Curtis mentioned in his talk resonated with me:
“Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Aside from describing the fight-flight-freeze reaction, Curtis kept talking about “amydala-driven-meetings.” These sound very similar to the basement parties I remember so well, although now that it’s a few years later, I realize that they can take other forms as well. When I see fists pounding on a table, hear raised voices or the metaphors go all military and we’re marching against the enemy until “we can see the whites of their eyes”…I know that there is panic and that no good can now come out of the meeting.
These meetings happen to all of us, and it’s worth considering what we, as individuals, can control in these situations. Here’s what I try to do:
1. Recognize that there is panic in the air
2. Refrain from contributing to the stress level. Now is not the time to judge others, make assumptions or pass along 2nd hand information. (Well, it is never time for these, really)
3. If it’s possible, diffuse some stress by introducing forgiveness if someone or another group is being blamed It can help change the tone of people’s thoughts.
4. Use the crucial conversation trick of saying out loud, “I want x and I don’t want y…is there a middle ground here?”
5. Make every effort to avoid commitment as it will be a commitment made as the result of an oxygen-starved decision.
6. Sadly, I’ve also seen meetings where it’s best to just not participate in the party at all and stay quiet. If this happens, it’s an indication that there is some serious dysfunction happening in a group which is usually based in fear and insecurity. In groups where individuals are empowered, this shouldn’t ever happen, but in the real world, even the best groups have their bad days and bad meetings.
It’s easy to blame people who participate in these amygdala driven meetings or to beat ourselves up if we find ourselves participating, but it’s worth remembering that most of us don’t have good stress coping skills modeled for us. In fact, even if we work on this in our personal lives, most workplaces do little to encourage the management of stress in meetings. In fact there are plenty of places where the panic is encouraged. Even though I found a comic element to the “parties in the basement”, I also knew that our company routinely did layoffs at the end of the fourth quarter just to make their bottom line look better. I’d love to see a study of how much revenue is lost from bad decisions made in oxygen-starved meetings, but I’m not, uh, holding my breath on that one. Corporate America…for the loss.