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How do systems help in a chaotic situation?

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

How do systems help in a chaotic situation?

Scott Miker

When I was attending Kent State University studying psychology and justice studies I did an internship at a juvenile detention center.  I learned a lot and got to experience the corrections industry but what I remember most and will never forget is one specific incident. 

Despite just being an intern, I was able to take part in much of their training.  The training provided various situations, where the officers had to work as a unit to take control of chaotic situations.  But the training seemed to be just training to me and I thought, surely, if something were to happen it is about reacting not trying to follow some training class instruction.

But one particular day I recall being there and being between shifts.  This meant that all of the first shift staff and second shift staff were there and ready to pass off duties. 

One of the inmates at the center was a young man who had a good heart but often let his emotions take control of his behavior.  He was one of the largest people I have ever met and towered over my 5 ft 8 inch body and probably weighed 100+ lbs more than me.  His size meant that he was bigger than most people, even most of the detention officers at the facility. 

When I arrived along with the second shift staff, I was told that he was agitated and that an officer was going to talk to him to try and calm him down but warned that this didn’t always go well.  Several other officers gathered outside of his cell to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. 

The lead officer was talking to the individual and when the inmate started to get aggressive the officer decided the best step was to remove him from the cell and put him in a separate area of the facility, partly as punishment for his behavior and partly to calm him down in a safer room. 

As he started to exit the cell, the inmate got upset and suddenly the situation turned.  The inmate panicked and started to try to attack the officer.  Officers who I had worked with for months and I assumed very passive were suddenly all working together in a choreographed manner to subdue the inmate. 

One would grab his arm while another grabbed his head.  Another grabbed his leg and together then took the inmate to the ground.  Others jumped on him and, just as we practiced, within seconds the officers controlled the dangerous situation.  I was shocked at how the officers maintained control during the entire incident to assure nobody was injured, including the inmate. 

They reacted according to their training and only increased their force when the inmate increased his aggression.  They only applied as much force as necessary to end the situation without anyone getting hurt.  I realized that mirrored the training we had.  Everything seemed to be followed from the initial contact, to the takedown to the securing of the inmate and the other inmates in the center. 

Afterwards I could not stop thinking about how controlled this situation was from the officers’ perspective.  At every moment they were confident in their response and reacted according to their training.

But this was not a normal activity.  This was a chaotic situation that was very dangerous.  There was the potential for injury or death.  There was a very large individual who let his emotions get the best of himself and he wanted to hurt those around him. 

To me this exemplifies why systems are so important. Habits and systems can be used to help us reach a few basic personal goals but systems are also used in situations where things seem to be chaotic and unpredictable.  In extreme situations we can respond according to specific direction based on past situations.  As long as we learn and are willing to train and solidify the systems we can remain in complete control despite the most chaotic environments. 

Yet many argue that systems limit us.  They believe that chaotic situations require a flexible mindset and training limits our ability to be flexible.  But the reality is that training and relying on the systems in place can be incredibly effective even in the most unpredictable situations and give us an understanding of what to.