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Fight, Flight, or Freeze — Releasing Organizational Trauma

Matt Stratton | GOTO Chicago 2019

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When humans are faced with a traumatic experience, our brains kick in with survival mechanisms. These mechanisms are the familiar fight or flight response, but can also include the freeze response - which occurs when we are terrified or feel that there is no chance of escape.

In this talk, I will explain the background of "fight, flight, and freeze," and how it applies to organizations. Based on my own experiences with post-traumatic stress (PTS), I will give examples and suggestions on how to identify your own organizational trauma and how to help heal it.

Sufferers of post-traumatic stress continue to feel these fight, flight, and freeze responses long after the trauma has passed because our brains are unable to differentiate between the memory of trauma and an actually occurring event. When activated or triggered, the brain reverts to these behaviors, which are then expressed in the person’s body (through posture, disassociation, muscle tension, etc).

The same can occur to organizations - once an organization has experienced a trauma (a large outage, say) the “memory” of that trauma leads to a deregulated state whenever activated (by symptoms of similar indicators, such as system alerts, customer issues, and more). The organization will insist on revisiting the same fight, flight, or freeze response as the embedded trauma has caused, which, similar to a triggered post-traumatic stress sufferer, is a false equivalency.

One of the treatments for post-traumatic stress is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), in which the patient’s difficult memories are offset with a positive association that is reinforced through external stimuli. The same can be done for organizations - removing the inaccurate traumatic associations of previous outages and organizational pain through game days, and other techniques, we can reduce the “scar tissue” of our organization and move forward in a balanced manner.

Who should attend this talk: Anyone who is dedicated to improving the culture of their organization, especially incident responders and their leadership.

Academic Level: Intermediate

What is the take-away of this talk: An understanding of how our organization responds to incidents and outages, and how to improve this to not forestall innovation, as well as help minimize and prevent burnout for responders.

About the speakers

Matt Stratton
Matt Stratton

Host of the Arrested DevOps podcast and Director of Developer Relations at Aiven