Your Brain on Threat

You’re feeling strategic, thoughtful, creative…until it hits: that one thing that plunges you directly into reactivity. Or maybe you’re already in freefall, and that one thing was the last straw. You find yourself shutting down, getting angry, feeling despondent – whatever your flavor of threat response happens to be. All of us have threat triggers that hijack our best-laid plans and aspirations. 

These triggers helped our ancestors respond quickly to dangers, but they make it hard to learn, navigate complexity, or access compassion – precisely the types of responses most needed at work. Threat triggers are deeply wired, and it’s unlikely that you’ll unlearn them. But you can manage them better if you’re able to recognize them in yourself and others, and turn down the volume when they appear. At Talentism, our framework helps us to name psychological threat triggers for ourselves and our clients. These fall into two categories: security and status. 

The most basic level of security threat is physical. Hopefully this pops up rarely in business, but it’s the fear that physical harm will come to you. Aside from physical threats, the other threats to survival are food, shelter, and a feeling of safety. The feeling of safety can manifest as ‘wanting to stay where it’s comfortable’. At work, that may appear as someone holding onto responsibilities that no longer make sense for their role, but which feel familiar. Providing is the threat triggered when you worry that you will not be able to provide yourself, or those close to you, with those elements necessary to survival. 

Worries about safety led to the need of all animals to be able to identify like from unlike: things that will attack vs. those that won’t, things that might carry disease vs. those that won’t, things that will threaten your food supply vs. those that won’t. They did this through determining relatedness. In humans, this shows up as tribalism: people who belong, vs. those who don’t. We see it in organizations, no matter how evolved a workplace may be. 

Finally, membership is a powerful security trigger in organizations. For social animals in the wild, including humans, group excommunication can be a death sentence. As a result, we’ve developed a natural sensitivity about other people’s attitudes toward us. When you see people being conflict-avoidant, people pleasers, or worried about delivering tough feedback, this is usually a membership trigger at play.

Status triggers in humans are complicated because of the near eusocial nature of human existence. But even we have a basic status trigger that most, if not all, animals have: autonomy. This is a desire to be able to do what you want to do, extending to a desire for free movement and the ability to sculpt your environment. Someone with an autonomy trigger may chafe at the demands of their role, feeling that they can’t do what they want or what they think is best for the company.

Less common than autonomy-based status threats, are threats to status as influence. Rather than being concerned with doing what you want, it’s about being able to make others do what you want. In a business environment an influence trigger might show up as micromanagement, as someone tries to pressure others into behaving a certain way.

Both autonomy and influence status threat triggers are mostly related to power dynamics. But there’s a social status-based category as well: fairness. Humans have a basic sense of what is fair and unfair, as far as rewards and punishment go. They have an expectation of outcomes for themselves or others. When something feels unfair – a promotion awarded to someone else, for example – people can go into a threat state. 

You can’t address your threat triggers if you don’t know what they are. If you’re willing to sidle up to your fear, consider the moments you’ve recently experienced that felt unusually stressful. Do any of them remind you of the scenarios mentioned above? Triggers are designed to protect us, so odds are high that they’ll stick around. But if you’re able to be curious about them, you’ll likely learn something useful about yourself and others.

Authored by:

Talentism