Breaking Free from the Survival Trap

Day in, day out, I see business owners trapped in the survival trap. It’s painful to watch and I try to throw out a lifeline whenever possible.  What’s challenging is that when we’re in the survival trap, our attention is so focused on surviving, we miss—and sometimes even intentionally pass up—opportunities to get ourselves out of this trap.

What is the survival trap? We’re in the survival trap when the majority of our time and energy goes toward doing what needs to be done to manage the current crisis in front of us. Maybe it’s a cash flow crisis. Maybe it’s being short-staffed. Maybe it’s a sudden increase in sales that exceeds our ability to meet the demand.  Maybe it’s an unexpected tax bill. There are lots of crises that happen in small business!

When we’re in the survival trap, it’s our human nature to focus all of our efforts on “stopping the bleed.” Unfortunately, many small business owners operate continuously from within the survival trap and never break free.

Once we get into the survival trap, it can be nearly impossible to break out on our own. This has to do with how we humans are wired. When our survival is threatened, the primitive part of our brain kicks in. The higher-level parts of our brain that govern creativity and problem-solving shut down. Unfortunately, those are the very parts of our brain we need to get ourselves out of the survival trap!

We get tunnel vision. We get “nose-down” and miss opportunities right in front of us to move our business forward. We hunker down and get short with those around us who could help us. Yes, we push away help and opportunities to make things better!

Breaking free of the survival trap means, even as you manage a crisis, you proactively and consistently do things to move your business forward. Look for ways to not only resolve the current crisis, but to add value to your business while doing so. Uncover the underlying problem that led to the crisis and try to resolve that, rather than slapping a band-aid on the situation. Look for ways to resolve the current crisis that set you up to experience more freedom from the day-to-day demands of your business in the future.

If you hear yourself saying, “Sure Sabrina, I get what you are saying, but I’ll get around to that once I get a handle on this crisis in front of me,” I’ve got bad news for you—you’re in the survival trap!

I’d love to tell you that my clients never get into the survival trap, but they do. When a client is in the survival trap, my job is to help him or her manage the current crisis in the most efficient and effective way possible AND to continue taking steps to move the business forward. I help my clients identify the simplest, most basic actions they can easily take to resolve the crisis so they can keep moving forward. It’s my job to break through that tunnel vision and expand my client’s view of the opportunities within reach to move the business forward. In short, I make sure the crises are not running my clients’ businesses.

I know I’ve done my job well when a client ends a call saying, “You know, I was so focused on dealing with this crisis, I was tempted to skip our call. But, I am so glad I didn’t. What we came up with is going to save me hours of headache and frustration!” Wahoo! That’s a sign my client is breaking free of the survival trap.

What are your strategies for breaking free of the survival trap?

Sabrina Starling, Tap the Potential  Written by:

Sabrina Schleicher

2 replies
  1. Fred Pieplow
    Fred Pieplow says:

    Dr. Sabrina – Taking the first step to free yourself from the survival trap is hard work. Do you have any tips you tell your clients to help them believe it will work and is worth the investment of their time and energy?

  2. Sabrina Schleicher PhD, PCC, BCC
    Sabrina Schleicher PhD, PCC, BCC says:

    Fred, I find that simply talking through the situation and having someone ask clarifying questions can be very helpful to see possibilities for breaking free from the survival trap. I want to stress that it’s important to come up with solutions that address the underlying problem and the current crisis. Too often, when we’re in survival mode, we slap on a bandaid and keep moving. Unfortunately, that doesn’t address the underlying problems.

    Also, there is nothing better than a good night’s sleep for seeing the situation in a better light the next morning.

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