DIY Thinking 1.5: Fight or Flight

The more you criticise someone, the less impact it has. This is a very broad statement but is a good rule of thumb.

Remember what Mpho had previously said to John. “John, your report is poor. It is not the standard of work the company prides itself on’. Revise it and let me have an acceptable version by tonight.”

It is not that John can’t or won’t go to his desk and open the report to revise it. It is simply that, rather than being in a motivated and creative state ready to re-look at the report and give of his best, it is more likely that mentally and physically John is still in a negative state induced by the criticism. He is ready to fight or flee. His mind is more likely to be considering how unfair the situation is and what he would like to do, even as he goes through the motions of revising the report. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that at this time, John will attack anyone who approaches him. This transference is not unusual. I can’t tell my boss what I think of her, but I can vent at my staff, or colleague or the cleaner in the kitchen.


Answer these questions truthfully to yourself.

  • Do you take it out on others when you have had a bad day?
  • Do you snap at your colleagues, slam things down, are you rude to other people, drive recklessly, critical of your children, angry at your partner or send out angry tweets? 

The last time you have a serious verbal ‘skirmish’ with someone – what had happened in the hours previously and what were the consequences. Answer YES or NO.

  • Did that ‘event’ above enhance your output?
  • Did others around you, especially your team, work more comfortably as a result?
  • Did it improve your team’s resilience?
  • Did it enhanced team morale or output OR anyone else’s?
  • Do others, respect you for you behaviour and attitude? Answer regarding your team, your colleagues, management.

Do these ‘skirmishes’ impact on your health and wellness? Do you, or those around you, suffer from high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, and excessive levels of cortisol?

When criticised, a primitive part of John’s brain sees threat or potential harm to himself. It drives him into a protective fight-or-flight mode. The problem is that while he is in this mode, that is almost all he can do.

While a person is in a fight-or-flight mode, that part of the brain is in control and the person is no longer open to advice. In addition, depending on how bad the criticism, John may have moved into acute stress response. His heart beats faster, his hands have become a little sweaty and he may even feel light-headed. John cannot think as clearly as he does when more relaxed. He may go white or red in the face. Chances are, he is also having difficulty putting his brain in gear to formulate an answer. At that point, he will not be at his most creative and innovative and receptive to advice or help. 

It is a binary situation. One is either in a fight-or-flight, or receptive-and-creative mode. The latter is required to maximize John’s productivity and deliver a great improvement. The problem is how will he get there?

Fight-or-flight is normally not a good time to process advice, be particularly creative, or fix a problem. Instead, the brain of the threatened person closes down or shuts off, and the individual is less productive at all levels for some time.

Not all stress is equal

Note, we are not talking about a bit of stress – a response that under certain circumstances will improve your performance. An example of that would be the need to deliver a great presentation in order to close a deal. 

A certain level of pressure gives one an edge, but if it is high enough and often enough, it can become a handicap. Much depends on the individual. 

Criticism that makes stress as a handicap

Many factors, including resilience, affects how much stress is good and just how crippling  bad stress is. Factors that matter include, but are not limited, to:

  • how someone responds to different degrees of stress
  • for how long has the level has been high
  • how much relief there is from stress – non-stressful periods
    how much positivity (such as good things like rewards, success, recognition, relaxation, laughter) one experiences
  • how emotionally/ psychologically resilient the person is
  • the consequences of non-performance for an engaged employee and for the company. 

The stress level will be very high if the deal is needed to save the company, the jobs of 47 people and the presenter’s business credibility. The threat of the company closing may spur you on, but for many people this is not the time they do their best work. For them, because of the high fight-or-flight reaction and an overdose of the hormone cortisol, their performance may be mediocre.

The stress level will be much lower if a presentation needs to be successful in order to sign up a new client for an already prosperous company. Under these circumstances, rather than the more demanding, some people may deliver their best work.

A good team leader knows the team members. This includes how much stress motivates and how much stress handicaps, especially as members differ. Each team member is a unique individual. There are better and more productive ways of raising the level of stress to motivate, than using criticism. Too often criticism fails to motivate and often it backfires. It is also usually impossible to know a team member well enough to know when you are motivating and when you are destroying.