Fight or Flight

How many times have you met with an employee about an issue and the response has been other than what you hoped for? Sadly, the typical response to criticism in the workplace is tuning the speaker out, running away, or responding with aggression.  This reaction to criticism comes from a very old human response: the fight or flight instinct.

The fight or flight response is our body’s primitive response to danger by preparing us for fighting a perceived threat or when the odds are not in our favor to flee from the threat.  Although bad news from a superior usually is not a threat to our survival, the body will react in a threatened manner when put in a highly stressful situation.  When considering stress in the modern world, workplace anxiety and performance is one of the top three big areas.

When the response starts, nerve cells activated and hormones (such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol) are released into the bloodstream.  Our body transforms from its usual method of operation to increased respiratory rate, blood concentrated in muscles, increased awareness, enhanced response time, reduced pain receptor conduction, and changed perception of surroundings.  All of these physical actions are related to our desire to assess the predator or enemy.

A related outcome of this transformation is that our rational mind is overridden.  Our mind and body becomes almost entirely focused on survival and deciding between engaging and running away.  If we imagine the world of saber tooth tigers or mammoths, then it makes sense that our rational mind would need to give way.  A great example is the scenes with people verses ancient beasts from 10,000 BC or Jurassic Park.  Even in our modern world, it is hard to imagine that the fear would not be overwhelming when confronting these types of threats.

So, how does this relate to when I receive a negative performance review, I do not do something right the first time and I am criticized, or my idea is shot down in a meeting?  Basically, the age old response mechanism is still present in all of us and activates in stressful situations that the body interprets as threatening.  The response may not be as great as confronting a saber tooth tiger, but it is still threatening.

How can we counteract this trait in our employees?

  • Understand it
  • Prevent it
  • Work around it

Understand It

If we understand that it is ever present, we can plan accordingly. Most of us have no interest in creating situations where the person fights or disengages due to feedback or criticism.  Our goal as leaders is to use feedback as a positive motivator.  We all have areas for improvement and the optimal outcome is acceptance of the concern and improvement.

Prevent It

We can prepare our comments and the environment to be less threatening to increase the chance that the response will not be activated.  Most psychologists recommend that the negative message be mixed with some positive feedback as well.  This reduces the level of stress and mitigates some of the fight or flight response.

Work Around It

If we see that the response has started, it is a good idea to reduce the impact.  Before the employee can act out of instinct, it is important to diminish the level of stress by making sure that the employee understands the comments, what can be done to improve, and the contribution that the employee makes to the organization.

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