An article in a book, “Hostage at the Table” caught my attention. It discusses the relationship between the Stockholm Syndrome, Hostage Mentality and Leadership.
The article titled “Stockholm Syndrome and Hostage Mentality” describes the bonding that occurs between a hostage and his or her hostage-taker as a survival mechanism.
The author George Kohlrieser highlighted several cases of real-life hostage situations where the hostages not only bonded with their captors during the ordeal but continue to demonstrate loyalty and emotional attachment towards these people who meant to harm them even after being rescued.
They bond to their captors in order to survive, but when the ordeal is over, some immediately try to reassert their power and sense of self. But others may not be able to do so.
As bizarre as this may sounds, this reaction is essential for survival at the time of ordeal. But the author made the point that the lessons drawn from these hostage survivors, believe it or not, are applicable to self-management, corporate leadership and business.
I am rarely impressed by any information I read nowadays, many are just summaries or rehashing of information already out there.
So what will you do if you are held hostage?
Do you feel hopelessness and helplessness?
Kohlrieser argues in Hostage at the Table that it is our survival instinct to focus on the “danger” i.e. the negativity around us. But he advocates going against this instinct – to act counter-intuitively so to speak. What this means is to focus on the positive instead, not the helplessness or hopelessness of the situation.
To recognize that you do have a choice in any situation. You can choose to give in; to concede to the situation. But take back control once you are able to.
He cited Nelson Mandela as a good example to illustrate how 26 years behind bar never embittered him. How did he manage to do that? Mandela saw the years behind bar as training and preparation for the liberation of South Africa.
During the long incarceration period, Mandela bonded with the guards and people around him. His reaction was counter-intuitive. Instead of running away, escaping, he chose to reach out and carry out dialogue and exchanges with the very people that kept him behind bar; he chose to create emotional bonds.
I find this idea fascinating, to bond with your captors when you are supposedly the “victim” and powerless. Once the bond is established, you can influence and persuade effectively.
Hostage at the Table and Self Management
He then extends this to the art of self-management, which is the most relevant part for me.
So when you feel trapped, do you feel that the only way is to change your external situation, i.e. to quit, moving to another city or school and so on.
That hit home for me as I realized, some years back, that I have a tendency to do just that. When I feel trapped, regardless if it is a result of a demanding boss or a seemingly impossible task and situation, that is my habitual emotional response.
He emphasized that one has to recognize that it is not changing the external situation, but to start from the inside person. Once you refused to give in to that sense of powerlessness or helplessness, but instead realize you have a choice, though the choice may not be easy and the situation is still frustrating, go ahead and go against your instinct. Attempt to create emotional bond with the “captor” and see where it leads.
He argues that bonding is often counter-intuitive because it requires us to focus on what the other person (in some cases, the dangerous or most difficult person) needs as well as knowing what we want. But it is so powerful because it personalizes the relationship, removing any toxicity and poison out of the process.
We can be taken hostage by ourselves or other people when we give away our personal power and allow ourselves to feel trapped or helpless. I believe many of us can identify with that intense emotion.
Hence, the epiphany for me is this – the anti-dote to powerlessness is emotional bonding. By connecting to people and goals, bonds are created. This enables us to feel empowered, enriching our lives in the process. It is more than just a survival mechanism.
And what is the result?
By not allowing ourselves to be taken hostage, we can manage our lives without NECESSARILY changing external circumstances. If we look externally for satisfaction, we only find fleeting gratification. To truly change our lives, we need to look inside.
Actually, I have read this a million times, but what differentiates this article for me is the how-to. That is, to create emotional connection or bonding with the very people I perceive as making my life “difficult”.
How do you achieve this?
First, STOP thinking with a “hostage” mentality. Recognize when you are reacting in a “hostage” mindset – that is, either being aggressive or defensive. Then choose how you will react by focusing your mind on the words used, and the transactions used with others.
Once you can recognize your habitual instinctive emotional reactions (hey, that’s part of self-awareness and discovery) then we can successfully INTERRUPT the lack of self-management. We literally set ourselves free from inner constraints and make REAL choices.
I like to contrast this with what some people like to call the “illusion” of having a choice. Isn’t it like two sides of the same coin, you may ask?
It is really a choice. We can choose to be a hostage and give up, or we can choose to override our brains’ instinctual reaction and focus on the positive. If we still do not get what we want, we can find the positive in not getting what we want.
Ultimately, we do not have to feel like a hostage, and that, my friend is still a victory!
I hope you will give Hostage at the Table: How leaders can overcome conflict, influence others, and raise performance a go.