Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.

Leaders must balance innovation with safety and disruption with predictability. Growth is not possible without risk. Zero harm will secure zero innovation. Too much risk and we bet the farm.

  1. When we feel unsafe we default to flight, fight and freeze reactions
  2. When we cause others to feel unsafe, we collapse their contribution
  3. When we feel safe and “play” together, we flourish and teams succeed

Safety is complex and can be unhelpful. The issue is confounded because safety perceptions and reactions are not conscious. They take over our conscious systems before we know it. The consequent behaviour is sub-optimal. No safety = no growth and innovation.

Stephen Porges recently published The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory(2017).  We reviewed his work several times. He makes a complex neurophysiological concept coherent and practical. There are two powerful leadership ideas.


1.  Unconscious neuroception drives behaviour

We swing from relaxed parasympathetic tone to reactive, distressed sympathetic tone.

The sympathetic (“stress” system) gives us our FIGHT (anger and violence) and FLIGHT (fear and avoidance) reactions. These reactions are based on adrenaline (epinephrine), increased heart rate and blood pressure. They mobilise us for action – attack or defend. The reactions are automatic and not conscious. While helpful in early evolution, today we generally regret them (modern presidents excluded).

Parasympathetic activity is mediated by the Vagus Nerve (10th cranial nerve). It has two layers – ventral (new, myelinated and above diaphragm) and dorsal (old, unmyelinated and below diaphragm). The ventral (new) vagus slows the heart, increases heart rate variability and allows calm, curious and connected behaviour. This activates health, growth and empathy. This is the foundation state of good relationships, collaboration and team flow.

The dorsal (old) vagus collapses the vascular and digestive system. We collapse or pass out and may void bowel and bladder. This is not voluntary but it may save life in a violent or abusive situation when you are the prey. This is the FREEZE reaction.

Wild animals have well defined zones that programme behaviour. Furthest out is FLIGHT. When we approach this zone, the animal will run away. Next is FIGHT. If we enter this zone we can expect to be attacked. Closest in is FREEZE when the animal will play dead.

The lion’s FLIGHT zone is 35 to 50 m and the FIGHT zone is 15 to 20 m. This is for a human on foot. In a vehicle, the lion will allow you to come within a few meters. If you then move or stand up, it will attack you. You are in the FIGHT zone.  Knowledge that can save life in an open game-viewing vehicle.

When safety fails

Porges argues that FREEZE is common for those subjected to abuse or with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Afterwards they feel guilty that they did not fight back. In actual fact, the body (dorsal vagus) was protecting them from further violence – just as a mouse in a cat’s jaws will play dead. Understanding this facilitates recovery.

He shows how simple steps can build an understanding, sense of safety and recovery:

  • Long exhalations to increase heart rate variability
  • Prosodic voice (lullaby) or music (Johnny Mathis love songs), and
  • Counselling with prosodic voice and expressive faces

Porges claims to have improved the lives of over 200 children with Autism by using this as part of treatment.

Safety finds itself in direct conflict with health, growth, innovation and collaboration. Obsessive worry about missing a process, inappropriate connection or adverse consequences can push us toward FLIGHT (avoid), FIGHT (vote right) and FREEZE (give up). What is meant to protect can shut down our better selves.

Business success today needs risk, innovation, intense collaboration and disruption (not safe at all). These behaviours are much more like edgy play. They require both sympathetic activation and strong ventral vagus activity.

How does a leader balance innovation with safety and disruption with predictability?

Growth is not possible without risk. Zero harm counters innovation.


2.  Play as a platform for transformation

What might happen if we activate the ventral (new) vagus and the sympathetic system together? We will be highly activated and mobilised (sympathetic) while feeling calm, curious and connected (vagus). This is play. Watching young animals charge after each other, pouncing, posing, yelping and wrestling gives us great joy.

Play accelerates learning. It prepares the young animal for the challenges of hunting, defending and mating in a dangerous world. Without play survival is compromised. Play is facilitated by regular eye contact, prosodic communication and an expressive upper face – crinkles in the outer corners of the eye and centrally raised eyebrows. Play builds high trust community, family, and team.

Play is the state of an exceptionally high performing team. It is respectful, open, honest, provocative, demanding, pressing the limits, empathic, forgiving, and joyous. This is also found in the intimacy achieved in a loving partnership. Embracing risk with this attitude of play is the foundation of trust and the better world we know is possible.

Porges points out that the more we play the more effective adults we become. This is obviously true for physical skills. Far more importantly, this is how we develop our emotional intelligence and social skills. Play is a critical component of healthy childhood and adulthood. Working parents, anxiety about intimacy, and devices have dramatically dropped the time we spend in play. Play may be a cost effective solution to the suffering caused by mental health.

Sadly, our youth grow up with play on a device. This is not play and it does not activate the dorsal vagus. There is none of the direct reciprocity of eye contact, vocal resonance and facial expressivity. Nor is there movement and physical skill building. In most mental health disorders, play is absent or limited.

Leaders creating a better world must balance caution with high risk play. Breathe out, hold eye contact, smile, sing and play.

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