Are you a manager who spreads stress?

Written by Timothy Bradshaw Wednesday 06 April 2022
Managers can easily trigger the fight-or-flight stress reaction among their people. Here's how you're doing it – and how to stop
A man standing with his hands on his hips under the word fight, and a man with a briefcase running away under the word flight

I have found myself in a number of scary situations over the years, from gunfights in Afghanistan to earthquakes on the side of Mount Everest. No amount of exposure to these situations has reduced the effects of the fight-or-flight mechanism or stopped it from being triggered. Unfortunately, this fight-or-flight mechanism is not necessarily useful if the “threat” that we’re responding to requires intelligent problem-solving – and hasn’t really adapted to things such as receiving a poor quarterly performance review.

Something as simple as not communicating effectively can trigger the fight or flight mechanism within our colleagues

What’s made a huge difference to me in high-pressure situations is an acceptance that it is happening to both myself and others in my team – and therefore that we need to help everyone manage their personal reactions.

Something as simple as not communicating effectively in an everyday work situation can trigger the fight-or-flight mechanism within our colleagues, teammates, and friends. If we’re not careful, it’s possible to create a cascade stress reaction that will run through our entire team, or even our entire organisation.

Take this example…

You’re sitting at your desk and receive an email. The boss says, “Be in my office in 20 minutes” … Your heart rate picks up. You instantly start to focus on what it is you might have done wrong in the last 24 hours. You prepare yourself for bad news. We, or rather the boss, have triggered the fight-or-flight mechanism. You’re now in a heightened state of aggression and anxiety before we even go into that meeting.

You go to the boss’s office and you’re already in combat mode, defensive and possibly aggressive before you even hear what they have to say. The boss perceives your stress reaction, which in turn triggers their fight-or-flight response. What should have been a constructive debrief turns into a confrontation that further enhances your stress reaction. 

You then go back to your teammates and tell them to be in your office in 20 minutes for a debrief. We’ve now triggered the same stress reaction in our teammates and the cycle repeats itself – only now we’ve triggered the stress reaction in a team of ten people. They then go out to talk to their team members, and on it goes.

Once that reaction has been triggered, we and our team may not be in the best possible position to solve problems, collaborate and communicate effectively, particularly in a complex environment. (It can take between 20 minutes and several hours for the reaction to dissipate.)

Want to learn how to defuse situations like this?


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