Self-regulation can tame fight-or-flight response, CPO researchers write in HBR

February 2, 2021

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Robert E. Quinn

Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) co-founder Robert E. Quinn and faculty associate David P. Fessell explain “How to Keep Your Cool in High-Stress Situations” in Harvard Business Review.

Their article breaks down the biology behind our natural fight-or-flight response during stressful situations and lays out a framework for how leaders can hack it.

The CPO researchers, along with co-author Stephen W. Porges, say the key is to listen to your body so you can identify when you’re feeling stressed. A knot in your stomach or a racing heart are signals that you need to self-regulate.

Self-regulation involves tuning in to your higher purpose and remembering past challenges that you transformed into successes, the researchers write.

David Fessel

Once you’ve consciously shifted from fear to hope, your body will release oxytocin, a hormone associated with empathy. You will be able to move from defensiveness to connection and, in turn, collaboration.

“Understanding our biological reactions in high-stress situations gives us a path to follow; it is then our choice if we walk this path or fight it,” the researchers write. “And the choice we make is often the difference between our success and failure.”

Quinn is the Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Emeritus Professor in Business Administration and Emeritus Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan.

Fessell is a Professor of Radiology at the University of Michigan. He also co-directs the leadership curriculum for medical students at the University of Michigan.