How do you respond when a crisis hits? Are you a roll up your sleeves and go all in ‘fixer’? Or do you prefer to step back and wait for more information before you act?
How we behave in challenging situations links directly to our fight or flight response. When our brains sense a threat, they prime us to either stay and fight the attacker, or to run from the danger. This helped our ancient ancestors who were often faced with fierce predators and had to decide whether to attack or run away.
It’s less useful in the workplace, where we rarely – I hope – face life-threatening situations. Yet our brain’s ancient neural pathways still light up with the fight vs flight instinct. It means we might respond to a workplace conflict by rushing in on the offensive: “You’re wrong, I’m right!” (fight), or by changing the topic, over-analysing it, or leaving the room (flight).
However, there are two other less well known routes we might take when we feel threatened – Freeze and Fawn. Let’s take a closer look.
Imagine you’ve inadvertently offended a valued client. In fight mode, you might tell the client that they have imagined the slight, or perhaps you rush to blame someone else. In flight mode, you might avoid that client for several months.
Freeze is a bit different. When we freeze, we typically zone out, feel indecisive about what to do, or numb ourselves by focusing on something else (work, gaming apps, streaming services, and video games are all great for this, and can indicate that you’re in Freeze mode about something)
Fawn (also described as beFriend) is all about people pleasing, or trying to soothe your ‘aggressor’. If this is your default, you might go all out to please your client, perhaps agreeing to actions or compensation that go against your own interests. Outside the workplace, fawning can look like a lack of personal boundaries and assertiveness, or saying yes to things that you don’t want to do.
Knowing these other responses can help you to identify your own patterns of behaviour, and decide when they’re serving you and when the situation requires something different. None of the responses are bad in themselves. But recognising your default and when to switch it up can be a gamechanger. You can also adapt your responses to better serve the situation.
One of my clients was a habitual ‘fighter’. This had served her in rising to a senior role in a competitive industry. Yet when we started coaching, she had received a damaging 360 appraisal, with negative feedback from her direct reports. Her first instinct was to go on the offensive – trying to prove herself right, discredit the comments, and using the force of her personality to make team members back down.
When we explored her options, she could see that her typical Fight reaction wouldn’t help her in this situation. Instead, she chose Flight, and Fawn/beFriend.
Starting with Flight, she took time to gather more information before rushing to a response. This provided valuable thinking time.
To gather that information, she used Fawn/beFriend. She collaborated with her team and asked them to point out when she was exhibiting some of the intimidating behaviours mentioned in her 360. This helped her identify what triggered her stronger reactions and understand how her naturally energetic style could seem overpowering.
After a few weeks, she had developed a closer connection with her team, and could see how her ‘fight’ instinct didn’t need to come out on top in every situation. She also started to use ‘Freeze’. When she felt annoyed or threatened in a meeting, she would take some deep breaths and pause to reflect before jumping into action. She also got better at using ‘fight’ in a more considered way, as a proactive response rather than a reactive reflex.
So now over to you. What’s your response when you’re faced with a challenge, threat, or disappointment? Do you have a typical default? Perhaps you favour one response at work, and another outside of the office.
Whatever your answer, remember that your first option is rarely the only one. Think about a challenge you’ve faced recently. How might you have used one of the other options in that situation? Could you have taken your habitual response and softened or tweaked it to get a better outcome?
As with all these insights, it’s about increasing your self-awareness and experimenting with different tools in your leadership toolkit. Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn are all useful options -experiment with what works for you, and you’ll begin to Fly.
Further reading: Real-Time Leadership by Carol Kauffman and David Noble
Executive Coach firstname.lastname@example.org