I recently enjoyed a fascinating conversation with a psychologist colleague of mine, Ann Daniel. She has invested a great deal of her professional career advising a major health care network on how to live out the network’s behavioral expectations for effective working relationships. One key element which Ann teaches is the importance we all place on our individual sense of security.
Running on Cow Paths
According to Ann, when someone feels insecure or threatened emotionally or physically, they naturally revert to their early childhood learned behavioral habits to protect themselves and defend themselves. She calls these often used behaviors “cow paths,” which she describes as well-worn and often trodden strings of behavioral reactions. They are one’s go-to reaction to feeling fearfully threatened or when seeking to avoid pain in its many forms. The intriguing fact about our preferred “cow paths” is they don’t guarantee they lead us to where we want to go or the emotional outcome we want to experience. Instead, a cow path is just a familiar coping reaction or thought stream that may or may not be appropriate or effective in achieving one’s desired goals or outcomes. Unfortunately, we tend to race down our favorite cow paths towards what we think is safety often before our logical and rational responses can catch up.
As I reflected on my conversation with Ann, I began to think about the key character qualities identified in Gallup’s annual Follower’s Study. For example, Gallup lists the most important leadership traits followers look for in the leaders they willingly choose to follow: trust, stability, compassion, and hopefulness. But based on my conversation with Ann, I wondered if one must also consider the feeling of security as a requirement for inclusive leadership and effective collaboration? This led me to create a model to help visualize the concept.
For people to form effective alliances and collaborate effectively, the group needs to encourage personal feelings of security. Individuals must recognize when they or someone else has slipped outside the security perimeter and is feeling insecure.
How to Avoid Scaring the Herd
My colleague Ann offered some behavioral indicators of someone’s sense of security. When we are feeling secure, we have an open mind and a growth mindset. We are willing to be curious, experiment, learn, and understand situations and other people. We can access our creativity, empathy, compassion, and respect for others and ourselves. We are free to be our authentic selves.
When we feel insecure, we will run down our cow paths of coping, self-soothing, defensive, and self-protective behaviors. Instead, we become judgmental, angry, confrontational, demanding, blaming, isolated, anxious, doubtful, discouraged, fearful, paralyzed, and even hopeless. We are guarded and are not willing to be authentic and vulnerable.
Our challenge is not to become an insecure runaway cow! On the contrary, creating and maintaining a sense of security is the safest space to build teams, collaborate, learn, form alliances and due leadership focused on change. So what can you do to keep the “cows” safe inside the security fence?
Want some help with your herd? Let’s talk.