What can survival situations and scenarios teach us?

Many people are fascinated by survival and the two most common questions I get asked are:

"How did you get into teaching survival?" closely followed by, "Well that’s interesting Mike, but what’s it got to do with the real challenges and issues I face in my everyday life?"

Lets face it, it’s unlikely that most of us will face a genuine survival situation, where actual life of limb are at threat anytime soon. 

Over the years I’ve observed myself and many others in survival scenarios, and actual, life threatening situations. They are a great observation platform for human behaviour.

A survival situation is cleaner, clearer and less complex than the lives we typically live. There are straight, uncluttered lines between what people do, and the results of their actions. And, the feedback loops are rapid and aggressive. It’s possible to observe the outcome of a particular way of thinking or acting a short time after it has been used. Sometimes you get to see whether what you did was effective or ineffective in a matter of minutes or hours. At most it will be a few days. 

This combination of simplicity and rapid feedback make it possible to directly observe your habitual patterns of behaviour. How the survivalist makes decisions, leads, resolves conflict, deals with uncertainty, handles changes to plan, works under pressure, builds rapport, deals with disappointment, manages expectations, and their other patterns of behaviour are thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of rapid feedback. Some patterns are more effective than others. Some people have a great toolbox of effective patterns. They handle uncertainty and difficulty with seeming ease. Others have patterns that make it more likely that things won’t go well for them, or the people around them.

Over the years I have seen the same patterns of behaviour I observe in the field show up in workplaces. They are present all the time, and get magnified when people are under pressure. In contrast to survival, work situations are much more complex. The feedback loops can be slow and indirect. At work, and in our relationships, it may be weeks, years, or even decades before we recognise the results of particular patterns. Even then, they may be so clouded in the complexity of projects, the patterns of other people, and the passage of time, that we may never gaze directly and clearly at the link between our patterns and our results.

Survival situations have much to teach us about the hard wired, ancient survival mechanisms we all have. They give great insights into the advantages and disadvantages of this incredible entity called a human being.

Having straddled the worlds of survival and organisational change for 20 years, I'm interested in giving people a bit of a user manual, helping them get the best out of themselves and the people around them when the pressure is on and the chips are down.