Survival in the boardroom

If you are a consultant or service provider – have you ever wondered why the more a client needs your help the less you can actually help them?

Or the other way round, if you are a retailer or manufacturer, facing serious difficulties in the market, it felt that it was really difficult to get to the heart of what was required to turn things around in the long term?

The bad news is: You’re not alone. The good news is: It’s not your fault (if that helps). It is perfectly human.

The reason for this is that in situations of increased stress, like the ones described above, levels of cortisol are increased in our brains, causing a “fight or flight” mode. Our process of thinking is typically characterised by:

  • a loss of concentration;
  • inability to perceive new information (i.e. to learn and to take into account changes in the market);
  • hampered short-term memory;
  • lack of initial planning of your actions; and
  • reactive rather than proactive and strategic decision-making.

This stress response is rational from a survival point of view, when processes such as learning and planning are not of primary concern and it is more important to react physically as soon as possible, rather than to react in the most appropriate way. Reacting in the most appropriate way involves planning, and planning means a loss of precious time, which can be a problem when you are about to be eaten by a lion in the Sahara desert.


Unfortunately our brain doesn’t differentiate between Sahara desert survival and economic survival situations. Our thinking and decision-making becomes dysfunctional, it is looking for sameness and familiarity in order to mitigate the perception of threat and uncertainty. It goes without saying that in the described situations it is often the only way forward to explore new ways, reinvent, take on innovative approaches and embrace change in our businesses.

So what is the way out of this dilemma? We need to become aware of this innate stress response and try to separate what’s really going on from the concerns and emotions around it that subconsciously drive irrational decision-making.

Although it might feel safer to use the same old brand pyramids or market research tools of the past, or to rely on discounting to boost sales in the short term rather than looking at the overall brand strategy, these may not be the most rational solutions to ensure long-term survival or competitive advantage.

My recommendation for modern day survival: Make a plan before the lion gets ready to pounce.

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights, a subsidiary of Retail Doctor Group, which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale.



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