I’ve heard it said the best we can do in life is to get out of the way of ourselves to let the miraculous shine through. But what does that mean in the context of crisis management preparation? According to industry standards, a well-prepared team has a robust and resilient attitude towards facing challenges that comes from the cultivation of confidence and competence. Yet according to Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Competence model, the most effective level we can operate from is unconscious competence when our masterful intuitive self is at the helm.
The stages of developing competency according to the model start with unconscious incompetence. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know, or you engage in wrongful intuition. From this foundational level teams are trained to the next level of conscious incompetence where they recognize their inability to perform effectively, or they wrongfully analyse, motivating them to strive further. From here it is a big jump in their development as they become consciously competent meaning they know they are now skilled and able to perform effectively with right analysis. This should be the end of the ladder, you say, as we are surely all vying to be able to consciously perform at our best. But no, the final rung is unconscious competence meaning you have mastery over your responses, in which you now operate from automatically with right intuition.
When your house is on fire your instinctive behaviour is to survive. In some extreme cases, people are reported to have exerted extraordinary powers to save others, like the mother of three who lifted a car off one of her children. Despite herself, she was unconsciously competent. At this level of operating in the world we are attuned to our sense of knowing, not from a knowledge point of view but from an intuitive sense of awareness. Intuition is with us all the time but seldom are we paying attention to it due to the inner chatter of voices in our head that second-guess our intentions. Self-awareness enables us to distinguish between the voices that come from psychological ‘shoulds’ versus the instinctive knowing of what is right in the moment.
An example of the power of awareness was when I was confronted by a group of around 20 monkeys as I sat reading near a forest in south India. I was stretched out on a stone-wall and suddenly noticed a tree close-by filling with a family of mischievous creatures as they peered in my direction for any edibles they could steal. On noticing their close proximity, I could feel energy shoot up my spine as my nervous system went on red alert and my hair stood on end. But the extent of my response remained only physiological as a concentrated awareness kept my eyes both on the book in my hands and mapping their every move as they one by one walked within inches of my feet.
According to medical science, when we’re stressed or staring potential danger in the face, the portion of the brain called the hypothalamus activates our fight or flight response releasing adrenaline and glucose into the blood stream, quickening the heart rate and tensing muscles and limbs. The brain undergoes an unconscious processing of information that is simultaneously interpreted along two neutral pathways. The low road has an attitude that has no time and takes no chances, as you spring into an automatic defensive survival response of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. The high road however takes time to consider possible scenarios based on questions, analyzes the situation, and delivers a more precise interpretation of events. It also has the power to shut down the hypothalamus’ response if it is recognised as a wrongful reaction.
On a psychological level, my mind remained in total presence throughout the confrontation. I see that the ability not to feed into fear came from the strength of my focused awareness. Had my psychological mind been able to reference fearful images or memories or imagine a monkey attack my encounter may have been very different. When you take on a fight or flight energetic response, animals can sense it but they cannot tell whether you are going to run or defend yourself, as the energy is the same. I’ve been around monkeys before and been witness to their reaction when mine is with fear: their mouth opens wide in a high-pitch screech with a full display of teeth. But this time was different as my state of unconscious competence produced a mindful poise that inspired enough courage for them to come close without any sense of threat.
Fear is part of our evolutionary survival response that has protected our species from walking into the mouth of a tiger. Times may have changed but fear is far from an outdated instinct as modern day predators can have you looking over your shoulder as you walk down a dark alley at night. Fear can keep us on our toes as an unconscious competence, but when it is contaminated by our conditioned psychological mind it can create an irrational perspective from unconscious incompetence.
Developing unconscious competence through self awareness
To build awareness takes us to be conscious of how the outer world impacts our inner world of emotions and thinking processes, and how our inner world impacts our experience of the outer world through projections and perceived reality. Medical science has shown that our bodies don’t know the difference between a trauma that is happening to somebody else and one that is happening to us. And with today’s advanced technology that brings us live global media coverage of acts of violence and terrorism into our homes, our ability to discern what is real for us personally has decreased. With our exposure to so much suffering and negativity, anticipation can lead to hyper arousal and provoke the belief that we are actually experiencing the stress we perceive in others.
If you were to take your psychological self as a point of distinction and were to recognize objectively in what ways this character absorbs and responds to the world based on personal interest and the beliefs of others, you are building self-awareness. This simple distinction enables you to recognize the roots of your thinking that come from a conditioned identity and builds a buffer of awareness to be able to distinguish the voice of the intuitive self.
How many times have you intrinsically known the right decision to take but clouded it in self-doubt? This happens all the time when our attention is focused outside ourselves on what should happen as opposed to what feels right in this moment. Intuitively we all have a sense of knowing, like an inner voice, or a gut instinct of turning right here, of calling that person now that leads us to marvel in the magic of coincidence and synchronicity. But through social influence and our adoption of dogmatic perspectives we have lessened our ability to tune in to our inner knowing of what is right in this moment, within this unique set of circumstances.
The more we can objectively recognize the thinking and feelings behind our reactions, the more power we have to get out of the way of ourselves and let our unconscious competence shine through. In these unpredictable times, it’s not enough to be powered by the book alone when facing the unknown. The strength of our resilience comes from tapping our inner resources, which can make a critical difference in determining right analysis and right action. In managing a crisis, the highest preparedness we can cultivate is to be well skilled to increase our competence and tuned in to our sixth sense of inner knowing to increase our confidence.