Fight or flight workplace Effectiveness Institute Jeffrey Howard

Fight or Flight Is Destructive in the Workplace

Many of us have been raised in homes, communities, or cultures that have unhealthy orientations toward conflict. Conflict is viewed as something negative, an indicator that something has gone wrong.

When faced with a conflict, we tend to have one of two knee-jerk reactions: fight or flight (sometimes we just freeze).

[Read “Simple Things Emotionally Intelligent Teams Do“]

What Do Fight or Flight Reactions Look Like?

A fight reaction includes attacking, blaming, or accusing others. You’re frustrated that your team is late on a deadline, so you end up castigating a team member in front of the entire group. Or when a supervisor points out that she found a bunch of grammatical errors in your marketing materials, you deflect her feedback by saying you’re involved in way too many team projects.

A flight reaction looks something like avoiding, placating, or pacifying. We pretend we didn’t notice that our child left some unwashed dishes in the sink after the numerous times we’ve reminded them about household expectations. Or we appease an assertive coworker by doing a certain process “their way,” even though we are quite confident there’s a more effective method of doing it. 

We’re all guilty of fight or flight. It’s important to note here that fight or flight can be the appropriate reaction in some situations, such as in life-threatening or career-ending circumstances. However, in the workplace and as in many social contexts, both routes are nearly always unproductive, and have negative, long-term consequences. 

Sometimes our initial reaction is to ignore what happened (flight), but if the problem or issue worsens, which is frequently the case, then a fight reaction will likely occur. Unfortunately, both reactions lead to reactive behavior or a decision with a short-term focus using only the information available on hand. At this point, problem-solving, further inquiry, and curiosity are no longer the focus. We’re merely trying to survive the moment. 

[Read “Navigating Conflict Is Your Responsibility, Not Theirs“]

The Fall-Out from Fight or Flight

Consider this. A colleague has routinely submitted work to me late, which has negatively impacted my own deadlines. I’ve ignored this problem for weeks (flight). I simply determine he’s just busy. Later I find him watching a funny video of an adorable puppy on his desktop during the middle of the workday. I’m instantly livid. I explode (fight) and demand that he get me the missing work immediately. As I’m walking away, I inform him that from now on I expect him to deliver his work to me on time. “There’s no more excuses for it,” I seethe. 

Now, what are the likely outcomes from this interaction? 

  • Either of us may come up with a Band-aid solution, addressing the symptom but ignoring the deeper issue, which, in this case, might be unclear expectations or perceptions of importance on certain deadlines.
  • There will be a loss of trust and respect, the relational damage from flight or fight.
  • We’ll have to expend time trying to “fix things.” Relational repair after a poorly handled conflict is important but it takes time that could have been used to accomplish tasks together. Or we might continue fixing new consequences caused by a cycle of poorly handled conflicts, instead of addressing the original problem.
  • Our willingness to work together will diminish. Put simply, people are less eager to work with someone after they have exhibited a strong (or multiple) fight or flight reactions.
  • There’s a reduction in collaboration. We are more likely to withhold some of our knowledge, talents, and expertise with others after a fight or flight interaction.
  • Our effectiveness decreases. People avoid situations or those involved in the fight or flight. We create futile “workarounds,” hold meetings after the meeting, and indulge in passive-aggressive behavior. Instead of dealing directly with the issue or the person involved in the conflict, we may ignore the issue, working with others instead, or handing off the issue to someone else.

When we use fight or flight, there is no long-term solution, no collaboration, no problem-solving, no further inquiry, and no discovery of mitigating circumstances. Trust and respect are damaged and productivity evaporates.

To be clear, there are times when delaying a difficult conversation is appropriate, such as waiting for the proper time and place, or when you are too upset to have a productive discussion. In situations like this, making an informed choice to delay the conversation is different from resorting to a reactive flight response. Similarly, there may be times when the risks of having a difficult conversation not go well are too high (e.g. you will likely lose your job and have no other options available in that moment, or the other person has a pattern of seeking retribution in response to difficult conversations, etc.). Again, making an informed choice to avoid the conversation because of these variables is different from falling prey to a reactive flight response.

[Read “When Your Behavior Style Needs Aren’t Being Met“]

The Ultimate Impacts on a Team

Our fight or flight reactions can create a few different outcomes for individuals, which eventually impact our teams. 

  • Win-lose: You win, they lose. Another way of saying this is that you felt heard or that you got what you wanted, but the other person did not feel fully heard or respected. While we all like to “win,” nobody likes to “lose.” Usually a “loser” will bide his or her time and wait for an opportunity to get even: aggressively (counterattack) or passive-aggressively (miss even more deadlines and “badmouth” you to colleagues behind your back). Even if people who feel that they’ve lost don’t counterattack, they tend to not be as productive.
  • Lose-win: You lose, they win. You didn’t feel heard and respected, but the other person did. Now it’s your turn to be unhappy and possibly to “get even.”
  • Lose-lose: Everybody loses, nobody’s happy and solutions have not been achieved. 

Win-lose and lose-win are only temporary outcomes until someone has a chance to “even the score.” Alternatively, when conflict is navigated well, we create a win-win outcome where problems are solved. Trust and respect are maintained. Win-win doesn’t mean that everyone gets everything he or she wants; it means everyone was heard and had a “way out with dignity.” 

Conflict can actually be an opportunity for growth and improvement but we have to learn how to manage it correctly. And that begins with minimizing our knee-jerk reaction of fight or flight.

Jeffrey serves as Communications and Marketing Director at Effectiveness Institute. He is also Editor in Chief of Erraticus, an online publication focused on human flourishing.

He is a former mental health professional and educator living in Cascadia.

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