Taming the Fight-or-Flight Response in the Workplace

November 15, 2022 Doug Glener

I recently spoke with Madeleine Homan Blanchard, chief coaching architect here at The Ken Blanchard Companies. We discussed leadership self-awareness and how the moods of our leaders can affect their people.

“Leaders have to be on their best behavior at all times,” explains Homan Blanchard. “Imagine if a leader carries a bad mood into their first meeting of the day, hears something they disagree with and blurts out ‘That’s the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I can't believe you said that out loud!’ How do you think people in the room feel? I can tell you. Everyone stops breathing because they are in shock. They don’t know how to respond.

“This leader’s aggressive behavior has created a fight-or-flight response in their team members. First, the amygdala—a primitive part of the brain—takes control. Blood pressure rises. They become tense. They may tremble or feel the urge to go the bathroom. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for self-control, memory, and cognitive flexibility—shuts down.”

A leader can say goodbye to productivity and innovation once they trigger that fight-or-flight response, explains Homan Blanchard. In fact, this kind of behavior significantly undermines the very things the leader wants to accomplish.

People who work in chronically stressful environments have difficulty concentrating because they are in a constant, hyper-vigilant state of high alert. Their thoughts are rapid and disorganized. They feel unmotivated and disengaged. Chronic stress can eventually cause digestive problems, heart problems, and a greater susceptibility to illness, at the very least.

“We all lack self-awareness to some degree,” says Homan Blanchard. “We tend to take out our frustrations on the people closest to us. But if we can keep a sense of humor about ourselves, we can acknowledge that we have succumbed to our mood. Then we can reflect, apologize, and get on with our day.

“Imagine the better response this leader would have achieved with a little more self-awareness—for example, if he had said ‘Help me understand what you mean’ to the other speaker. It would have resulted in a totally different dynamic in the room.”

Leaders need to cultivate self-awareness by paying attention to impact and practicing self-regulation. Sadly, some 30% of workers report that they’ve been verbally abused at work.

Blanchard’s SLII® and Self Leadership training programs acknowledge these challenges and give people a language and method to calm down. People can say to their manager: “I’m at D2 (disillusioned learner) on this task.” That could mean anything from “I'm struggling” to “I don't feel smart enough to do this—maybe I shouldn't even be in this job—why did I take this job in the first place?” to “I need to go home and take a nap!”

An insightful leader can reply: “Being at D2 is tough. Let me help you so we can get through this. I know you can do it!” This turns down the volume. People no longer need to be hyper-vigilant.

Leaders always have a choice. They can create an environment of psychological safety or risk triggering the fight-or-flight response. We know unequivocally which one helps a leader get the results they want. People in a psychologically safe work environment are 50% more productive, 57% more collaborative, and 74% less stressed than people who feel unsafe at work. They are also more likely to stay at their jobs and be satisfied at work.

Which environment do you want to create?

About the Author

Doug Glener

Doug Glener is the senior copywriter at Blanchard®. He earned a BA in English from Vassar College, is the author of two books, and has written for Harvard Business School, Training Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, The Financial Times, The United Way, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Holocaust Museum, The Norwegian Tourist Board, Michael Jackson, and many other renowned individuals and organizations.

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